Reading: The Footnote

February 13, 2013 § 17 Comments

The first chapter of Anthony T. Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History traces the development and importance of this oft-overlooked, yet critical piece of hardware in the toolkit of historians and researchers. Raising it above its position at the bottom of the page, Grafton notes its development from annotation and citation in texts from the early Middle Ages as well as its critical role in the professionalization of scholarship. 

          Anthony T. Grafton. The Footnote: A Curious History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. 

What comes to light is that importance of the footnote, which is often perceived as cumbersome and annoying by undergraduates (myself included just a couple years ago), lies in the need for historians to build their arguments on source material whose location and identity is apparent for their colleagues. In some ways, this reading connects to Booth in that both address the importance of writing for a scholarly community, and being aware of the needs of one’s reader. 

In reading this chapter, note the different developments in the historical profession, as well as the ways in which citation changed. 

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§ 17 Responses to Reading: The Footnote

  • ykki says:

    To read this article, I remembered when I submitted my paper to the journal for the first time. I did not put footnotes and the reviewer pointed me out that the footnote is indispensable for an academic article. What is the purpose to put the footnote? Is it just to show your academic citizenship? yuki

  • Christina James says:

    I really liked the idea of the footnote as part of a “learned dialogue” among scholars, and had never thought footnotes in this way before. While footnotes can show proof of research, are footnotes able to demonstrate that the writer’s research was thorough or balanced?

  • I thought it was really interesting when Grafton talked about the politics of footnotes, and how their omission by an author can imply his/her dismissal of a particular author or piece. It surprised me when Grafton mentioned how certain Italian scholars can immediately tell when there is an absence of a footnote or citation. Those are some darn well-read scholars. My question is would you ever intentionally omit a footnote or cite to show your condemnation of an author or idea? Would it be worth the risk?

    • Katie Fleeman says:

      I feel like I’m the opposite – like I’m going to leave a certain footnote out on accident and someone reading it will dismiss me! I’ve definitely had professors tell me to at least include certain authors in the “Works Referenced” so if anyone important ever read it, they would take me seriously.

  • dlimandri says:

    My questions are as follows:
    Is it preferable to provide the description of theory or principle as a footnote, with aims not to detract from the fluidity of your writing, or as integrated into your literary thought?

    Can you cite the commentary within a footnote, as I would expect there to be significant value in the ramblings of a noted historian or author?

  • chrisbazil says:

    This is a really interesting read. Firstly, I have never thought about the footnote in historical terms. Secondly, this chapter does an excellent job showing us how footnotes are translated differently based on the readers experience. Historians look to footnotes like detectives at a crime scene, while the casual reader often sees them as a bunch of tiny, unimportant lines. I better up my footnote game!

    So which type of footnote is the standard bearer for modern American historians? Is a specific type of footnote considered more “professional” than others? Is one type easier to use? Is one easier to read?

  • lexier says:

    Before reading this chapter, I had only thought of footnotes as a way for readers to find other texts about the subject, but I now realize that footnotes are much more than that; footnotes are a means to legitimatize the author and place the work in a larger historical cannon by supporting/refuting/referencing other works. I definitely have much more respect for the not-so humble footnote, now that I realize the politics behind it. That almost makes me intimidated to use footnotes in some of the ways listed, especially for my lowly mid-term essays, because in using a footnote, the author is elevating his/her work to the level of the works referenced.

    Although it may not be as relevant to research, I am curious about the different styles of footnotes, and wish the author had explained why these differences exist and why no standardization has taken place.
    – Lexie Ryan

  • mimichellemedia says:

    Grafton was a great read. By explaining to the footnote in a historical way, it really did clarify its necessity in academic writing. It’s more than a list of source documents to prevent plagiarism as I have long interpreted it.. it’s a way to poke fun at others’ work, to show off one’s intellectual style, to make limitations of your own theses obvious to others. My questions:
    1. Does the traditional political use of history (addressing peers about something you perceive as a universal validity) have a place in modern historical work?
    2. How did Germany change their approach to footnotes after the cold war? (W Germany only using German sources and E Germany putting Marx and Engels at the top of every footnote list)

    I like that Grafton illustrated “cf” as a way of putting down colleagues by doing it himself on page 8.


  • I enjoyed reading about the history of footnotes. When I first learned about them, I was told that footnotes were just for avoiding plagiarism and citing your sources. With that in mind, I wouldn’t look at the footnotes unless I was interested in a source. It was only upon taking upper division history classes that I realized that footnotes could hold more that simple citations, and that those citations were more important than I had thought.
    I enjoyed learning about the history of the footnote and its different roles in different cultures and across the years.

  • Cassandra Carrasco says:

    Wow–I had no idea footnotes had such a controversial life! I was once advised by a GSI to always read the footnotes, as they often contain some of the most interesting information and the context in which the author is writing or evaluating her/his subject (this was an anthropologists, mind you). So I actually do read footnotes. I wonder what the suggested approach to the footnote is for the undergrad student? The topic of footnotes doesn’t really come up in my department unless we’re reading David Foster Wallace (he was a fiction writer notorious for heavy footnotes). I do think it’s good to be aware of how one could fall into the trap of selective or rhetorical footnoting through omission or dismissal of other works.

  • This was an interesting read. I have not read anything on the subject of footnotes. I was also interested about the mention of the German university system of storing books by usage as opposed by categorized subject. That seemed like it would have been chaos.

    Is there a lower limit of footnotes that separates historical work from just non-fiction literature?
    Does anyone think that the system might change in the future so that the notes could be integrated into the work more seamlessly? I am referencing the movement towards more electronic modes for reading. So, if one was reading on a tablet, one could mouse over a link to the cited source and get the context of what the author is using.

  • This was a reading that was quite interesting. I did not know that footnotes contained a lot of information that made the book more understandable. Sometimes, I would skip the footnotes, if I was in a rush to finish reading something. The reading was more interesting than I thought it was. Also, the way the reading was written made it easier to read.

  • Shane Scott says:

    I really enjoyed the reading this week, it was very informative as I had previously only seen footnotes as points of references, and ways to show how much work you had completed to put together an essay. I was unfamiliar with the “subtle but deadly cf.”, meaning that another work has a different, and wrong, opinion, but I am glad I now know that it is a slight from one author to another.
    The discussion on how footnoting systems differ with each country was also very informative.
    it also interesting to see how in the past historians saw text as a tool of persuasion, while their notes were there to prove what they said, whereas now historians see text as a method of conveying proof, while notes merely cite their sources. Also, it is nice to see that established historians also make numerous mistakes while footnoting, and that no matter how diligent we are, footnotes can never fully exhaust all the important sources on a topic.
    Footnoting as a means to sully the work of a fellow historian is also novel to me, and it is fascinating to see how footnoting can be used to such an end, as was the discussion on how footnoting has improved with the professionalization of history.

  • This was definitely a fun read. I loved the author’s very dry sense of humor. I’ve actually encountered a few texts that deserved the dreaded “cf”. Thanks to this reading, I now know how to handle documents like them in the future. Look out BYU!

    I too found myself wondering how the citation might change in the future. Certainly Nicholas’ comment about footnotes eventually serving as hyperlinks seems like a really exciting idea, especially given the rapid digitization that scholarly material is undergoing at present. I had always viewed footnotes as a way of giving credit where credit was due, but I’ve come increasingly to view them as valuable sources of information when conducting research of my own. Hyperlink citations would definitely streamline that process.

    I also found Grafton’s ideas around footnotes only providing a partial picture of the research process really interesting. Of course each individual researcher will approach a text with their own set of ethnocentricities and predispositions, so it’s a good reminder that everyone won’t necessarily draw the same conclusions from the same set of texts. It’s also a good reminder that ultimately people do research to answer questions, and the answers to those questions should be the researcher’s own, no matter how many sources they consult to reach them.

  • maliamailes says:

    This made me think more closely about how I am citing sources! I am currently writing a paper that is a mix of MLA and Chicago Style, and so my footnotes are different than my Bibliography. I rarely look closely at Footnotes when I read, but after reading this I realize the importance of knowing where the information I am reading is coming from, and how it can help my understanding of the material!

  • I never new what a footnote was and still a little confused. I couldnt find the reading. But i encounterd a Footnote the other day while reading my soviet history book and it was very useful for me when I’m reading book. I do need to improve in my organization and writings for my papers and I know the foot note will help.

    How can I put a footnote in my papers?

    Will a footnote create a better organization.

  • edbanger52 says:

    I recently received a paper from one of my classes and in it my professor placed a heavy emphasis on the “footnote guidelines.” I decided to write on this particular reading because the Footnote is definitely very important. I personally find the Footnote to be neat and easy to reference. It sure beats writing a paper in MLA format.
    Though Wikipedia gets a lot of bad rep in the academic world because of the easiness to edit Wiki data, they do provide a footnotes section in every Wikipedia page. I have been told by professors in the history department to be wary of the footnotes and always judge the accuracy an entry. This is probably why some professors have allowed their students to use this site for quick historical reference and clarification. As Grafton pointed out, footnotes always look alike (as they do on Wikipedia pages) and they “confer authority” on a sentence and the writer. It is noteworthy that even-though they tend to look alike, they vary in origin and style. A historical footnote will look a lot more different than an anthropology one, or a science related one. I liked that Grafton brought up the abbreviations within the footnote that can catch inexperienced writers by surprise, how they can be misleading, and how that’s another challenge the historian must attend to. I am left with the overwhelming feeling that the footnote needs to be carefully constructed and every character in it has a purpose and meaning, whether is a quick editors note, or a page number entry. It was interesting to me that authors would get condemned by literary circles for failing to include “notable” works, an example given were the German scholars snubbing writers for failing to note “old-German literary” works. Grafton points out that even though it may seem that historians are like “direct descendants” of a particular episode of history, it is their footnotes and construed analysis of past works that give them that authority. This was a fascinating reading that changed my perspective on the power of the footnote. I just had basic history question about the introduction of the footnote. How did it end up being part of the Chicago Style manual? Why is it preferred among historians than MLA format? Lastly, tips and tricks in basic footnote writing.


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