How Do You Like Your Notes?

15 03 2009

A current discussion of one of the email groups to which I subscribe concerns citations/notes: where do you like them, at the bottom of each page (footnotes) or at the end of the book (endnotes)?  The overwhelming preference is for footnotes.  Also overwhelming is a preference for real, live, traceable citations as opposed to the general, incomprehensible notes that are all the rage today, even in university presses.  So, if there are any publishers out there reading this, please don’t feed us any crap about endnotes being preferable to footnotes, and especially don’t tell us that footnotes “break up” the book.  Endnotes force the reader to flip back and forth, and if the publisher compounds his endnote decision with the even more egregious error of not heading the note pages with the applicable text pages, the whole process is insufferable.   I suspect that the reason for endnotes over footnotes is cost-based.

And while we’re on the subject, I’ll once again register my displeasure with the trend toward useless notes that are impossible to correlate to text and hence are worthless when it comes to tracking things down (i.e. one note for three or four long paragraphs).  I don’t think this trend is cost-based, however, but is rather a reflection of poor or deliberately misleading scholarship.

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22 responses

15 03 2009
Drew W.

Agree wholeheartedly. Another favorite: the notes without a bibliography, so when you run into the abbreviated notation in the middle of the book (after it’s already been mentioned once or more, but who knows where) you have no chance of tracking down the source unless you backtrack through the notes page by page.

15 03 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Yeah, I was surprised that Holzer’s recent book on Lincoln as President-Elect lacked a bibliography. I get the impression that many publishers just don’t care anymore, but ultimately, if there are no consequences they have no motivation to care.

15 03 2009
caswain01

Harry,
I was *taught* by some very fine high school instructors to read a professional work by way of the notations. I’m continually asking myself, “where’d the author get this?” while reading. As you say, footnotes are ergonomic.

Craig.

16 03 2009
Harry Smeltzer

I have to admit to feeling more friendly towards books with footnotes, if only becasue they make the task easier. Now, just becasue they’re at the bottom of the page doesn’t mean they are good notes.

15 03 2009
Brooks Simpson

Sadly, it’s more cost/style based than you make like to know.

16 03 2009
Harry Smeltzer

I’ve invited a publisher to comment on this thread. Hopefully he’ll find the time. He has published books with footnotes, so I think he’s qualified to comment on the $’s and such of the various options.

17 03 2009
Brooks Simpson

Different publishers have different economic models given their situations.

17 03 2009
Harry Smeltzer

I’m sure they do. And I imagine to be competitive, publishers are aware of the different types of models used by other houses (homes?). But the reason I’ve asked this particular publisher is that he has published with footnotes and endnotes. I spoke with him last night, and expect to get his comments some time today.

15 03 2009
Brooks Simpson

That’s “may like” … no note. :)

16 03 2009
cenantua

I prefer JavaScript popups as I hover above the passage… but I haven’t figured out how to replicate that in print. :-(

16 03 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Problem with those popups is they never stay up long enough for me to read them!

16 03 2009
cenantua

I’m working on that… but need to escape the clutches of WordPress.com.

17 03 2009
Brooks Simpson

“And while we’re on the subject, I’ll once again register my displeasure with the trend toward useless notes that are impossible to correlate to text and hence are worthless when it comes to tracking things down (i.e. one note for three or four long paragraphs). I don’t think this trend is cost-based, however, but is rather a reflection of poor or deliberately misleading scholarship.”

Just how many presses have you published with, Harry?

17 03 2009
Harry Smeltzer

As all my regular readers are well aware, I have published with a grand total of zero presses – I am a no good, unpublished bum. But like my regular readers, I read a lot of books – like them, I have opinions about those books. The comments feature is a way for folks to share their opinions and experiences – that way we can all learn from each other and come to a better understanding, regardless of our resumes. When allowed to work properly, it’s a beautiful thing.

Care to share your opinion regarding this particular trend? Do you believe it is strictly a result of cost control?

17 03 2009
cenantua

As you say Harry, what matters is that you read a great deal and have an appreciation for good notes and an opinion on notes that are not as helpful. It’s not at all necessary to have published to have an appreciation for a certain style of notes. Frankly, notes should be user-centered. Just as in the case of poor web design, if the author or publisher doesn’t focus on the needs of the reader/user, the work falls short of its potential.

17 03 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Robert,

Obviously I agree, and I like the way you’ve stated it. But I think what Brooks is questioning in a round about way are my thoughts that the trend towards very general notes covering great slabs of text is not primarily cost motivated, but a result of poor or deliberately misleading scholarship. While I know there is a cost element to it, I’m not convinced that such is the case all the time. But it may very well be primarily cost based. I think the only way to find out is to get input from a good sample of honest publishers (insert punchline here).

17 03 2009
cenantua

Harry,

Taking a random sampling, it might be a little of both (cost and poor/misleading scholarship). Yet, I think (as you suggest) some input from publishers would be interested to see on this matter.

17 03 2009
A Publisher’s Perspective on Notes « Bull Runnings

[...] Publisher’s Perspective on Notes 17 03 2009 Ted Savas tried to leave a comment on this post, but for some reason it never showed up.  Ted is the managing directorof Savas Beatie publishing, [...]

17 03 2009
Brett Schulte - TOCWOC

Wow, good discussion here and one I completely agree with Harry on. i’ll take footnotes every time. Although it is tough to flip back and forth, I almost always do. good thing I have about 200 bookmarks floating around in my office!

18 03 2009
Harry Smeltzer

That’s what those little mini Post-it notes are for.

18 03 2009
Larry Freiheit

Harry,

Definitely footnotes. If it must be endnotes at the end of the book vice at the end of each chapter, then the top of the page with the notes must have the page numbers to which the notes pertain.

For me, the question of where an author should place each note number in the text does not have an easy answer. As commenters have said above, the note should help the reader understand the source for an idea or quote and perhaps explain it. For a relatively short paragraph, maybe one note at its end may be enough unless the paragraph contains several sources to be noted. One note for more than one paragraph is not good. On the other hand, having several numbered notes within a paragraph can be distracting unless the paragraph is very long.

My druthers change a little if the notes are merely cites and do not contain content. If they contain no content, then endnotes are fine for me. If they are content notes, footnotes are by far the best. If the notes are a mixture, it depends then on how much content they contain.

Larry

18 03 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks Larry.

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