U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Access Dates

While you are reading this, I am going through the footnotes and bibliography of what I damn sure hope is the final draft of my dissertation.

confessionsThere are fabulous digital tools that, when used correctly, automate much of the labor of footnoting. I never managed to learn how to use those tools, correctly or otherwise, and I’m not about to start trudging up that (or ANY) learning curve at this late date. So I am doing what I have always done: formatting every single footnote, every bibliographic entry, from scratch, by hand. I will probably live to regret this digital backwardness, but I expect I’ll live through it.

In any case, even as I make my way slowly through these footnotes, I find myself leaping suddenly backward and forward in time, backward and forward in thought, thanks to a pesky little detail to which attention must be paid: access dates for online sources.

Since I cite while I write – starting when I take my very first note on any source – the access dates in my footnotes often reflect the actual dates on which I first looked at those sources. I say “often,” because when I revisited a source or reworked a passage in revision, I frequently consulted the online text again; in those cases I changed the access date in the footnote accordingly to reflect my most recent visit to that webpage. But a lot of times when I revised or re-used a passage I’d composed at an earlier stage in the research and writing process, I didn’t need to look at the online source again, so I kept the access date unchanged in the footnotes.

So what I have in these access dates – at least in the ones I haven’t revised to reflect a more recent visit to the webpage in question – is a record that helps me reconstruct the order in which I pursued my research for this project, the order in which parts of my argument took shape (or didn’t!) as I turned all this stuff over in my noggin. Because of these access dates, which I diligently recorded to satisfy my obligation to the profession to provide an accurate and complete evidentiary trail for others to follow, I accidentally preserved a way for me to retrace the history of my own ideas, such as they have been, such as they are.

The earliest access date in my footnotes is March 12, 2011. The first source I looked at was Richard Bernstein’s 1988 New York Times article, “In Dispute on Bias, Stanford Is Likely To Alter Western Culture Program.” I first looked up that oft-cited article before I even knew that this project was going to be my dissertation topic. I was just working on a standalone research paper for my intellectual history PhD seminar. Little did I know what I had gotten myself into. And the latest date in my footnotes (so far) is September 21, 2015. That was the day I cited my colleague Andy Seal’s wonderful blog post, “Out of Circulation: Finding or Making an Archive.” That was the day I finally figured out how to frame the introduction to my manuscript – how to bookend my argument, as it were — and so how to bring my labors to an end.

In between those two dates, two bookends marking the beginning and end of my process of inquiry, there’s an awful lot of history, including but not limited to four years, three drafts, two archival research trips, and Saint Augustine in a pear tree. (I’m not kidding – Augustine makes at least a cameo appearance in every single chapter of my dissertation.)

Right now, I am more than ready to put all that history behind me. And pretty soon (please, Clio!) I will in fact be able to finally set this damn thing down: revised defended printed bound signed sealed delivered recorded awarded and that’s-all-she-wrote-DONE. Eventually, though, I’ll pick it up again – either because I’m ready to think about revising it, or because I’m going to fling it as far as I can out into the deep blue sea.   Either option seems equally possible at this point, though the second one sounds far more appealing. But before I change it or chuck it, I will read through it again. Thanks in part to the access dates (not to mention the fact that writing a dissertation scars you for life, which would have been nice to know before I did it; but of course how can you know this really unless you do it?), I will be able to recall the history of how I came to think as I do about this history I have tried to tell as best I can.

I guess that moment, however far off it seems, when I will be able to look back not just at this history but at this historian with real understanding, is something to look forward to. Whenever I get there, a trail of access dates in my footnotes will help me find the way back to the beginning of my journey, so I can see everything I missed the first time through — and everything I didn’t.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I used Endnote to compile my bibliography, but I found it much to fussy and clumsy for my footnotes, so like you I did all those by hand. A pain in the butt and a considerable investment of time. But that’s the only way I could get the footnotes the way I wanted them. I still do my footnotes by hand. On the bright side, neither of us had to write out our manuscripts by hand and have them typed up, or have to type them ourselves. Sometimes I wonder how anyone wrote anything in the days before word processing. A little bit of history I’m glad is consigned to the past.

  2. Congratulations on finishing!
    I can see why you enjoyed being able to retrace your intellectual steps, but for publication purposes I still fail to see the point of the access date thing. All online references should be checked for accuracy and currency before publication (or turning in a paper or dissertation)–and that’s it. The reader doesn’t need to know on what dates sites were accessed, and while many of the sources will certainly disappear over time, readers can assume that they existed at the time of publication. (It will also help them if the author adds a fair amount of other bibliographic information, possibly enabling the reader to find the source at another site.) Many publishers have done away with this requirement.
    And for the NY Times article, I don’t think you should even have to note that you accessed it online, let alone when you did so.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Yes, Varad, for me it is partly a matter of just not trusting the tools to get the formatting right. There are so many peculiarities for primary sources, and then sometimes I’m mingling bibliographic information for several sources and contrapuntal commentary on my own text together in a footnote, in no particular order (or in some order that doesn’t lend itself to automation). But mostly it’s just that putting together the documentary trail is part of the process of checking one’s own work for thoroughness, accuracy, etc. It’s one of those things that it’s helpful to learn to do by hand as part of mastering the mental habits of the discipline.

    David, thanks. I’m erring on the side of caution by including all the access dates in the footnotes, and if my university’s dissertation reader(s) tell me they’re not necessary, I’ll take them out. At the same time, the unforeseen benefit of using them, described above, is perhaps an argument for their continued use. At the very least, I’ll keep using them. Of course, I will also keep using two spaces after every period (and that’s in total violation of Chicago now). It’s a habit so ingrained in how I write on the fly, which is also how I think, that I am better off just sticking with my two-space practice and doing a global find and replace later. So I’m clearly not averse to the convenience of digital technologies, as long as they don’t mess with my analog process.

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