Notes About Notes

Last year I quoted the Hamilton College History Department guide to writing good history papers. It contains a solid justification for why historians cite their sources in footnotes and not in parenthetical citations.

Your professor may allow parenthetical citations in a short paper with one or two sources, but you should use footnotes for any research paper in history. Parenthetical citations are unaesthetic; they scar the text and break the flow of reading. Worse still, they are simply inadequate to capture the richness of historical sources. Historians take justifiable pride in the immense variety of their sources. Parenthetical citations such as (Jones 1994) may be fine for most of the social sciences and humanities, where the source base is usually limited to recent books and articles in English. Historians, however, need the flexibility of the full footnote. Try to imagine this typical footnote (pulled at random from a classic work of German history) squeezed into parentheses in the body of the text: DZA Potsdam, RdI, Frieden 5, Erzgebiet von Longwy-Briey, Bd. I, Nr. 19305, gedruckte Denkschrift für OHL und Reichsleitung, Dezember 1917, und in RWA, Frieden Frankreich Nr. 1883. The abbreviations are already in this footnote; its information cannot be further reduced. For footnotes and bibliography, historians usually use Chicago style. (The Chicago Manual of Style. 15th edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.)

I fully concur with this; my only wish is that footnotes (and not endnotes) were more standard in history publishing. At one point it was technically easier to publish a book with endnotes rather than with footnotes, but I should think that current software can exhibit footnotes easily enough. What keeps the notes as back matter, however, is the widespread idea that footnotes turn off General Reader. I have never understood this. You don’t need to read them, if you don’t want to! But if you do, and they’re hanging out back with the bibliography and the index, you need to make some effort to follow them, keeping your thumb (or a second bookmark) in the back where they have been placed.

We should make it as easy as possible for “all those who wish to follow into the deep woods, green pastures, and rewarding byways which lie on either side of the motorway of the text.”

• If we simply must have endnotes, though, it would really help if we could always have the running header “Notes to pages x to y” at the top of each page of them. And here is a technique that might act as a palliative for people annoyed at having to go note-hunting. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994) features reference numbers sometimes enclosed in square brackets, e.g.:

The implication is that something in the rural Georgia environment was depressing the scores of black children as they grew older.[98]

When you see the square brackets, you know that there there is some discussion in the notes, in this case:

98. Some other studies suggest a systematic sibling difference for national population, but it goes the other way: Elder siblings outscore younger siblings in some data sets, However, this “birth-order” effect, when it occurs at all, is much smaller than the effect Jensen observed.

Unbracketed numbers are simply citations, (e.g. “97. Jensen 1977”) – thus does the reader know what references might be more fruitful to follow.

(Yes, yes, I am fully aware how controversial this book is. I am endorsing its typography, not its contents.)

• But if your notes are largely citations, and not extra discussion, a good way to save space with them, and to make them look good to boot, is to run them all together without carriage returns, but boldface the reference numbers, somewhat like this:

12. Wheeler, Cultivating Regionalism, 43. 13. Marx, Das Kapital, 3: 465. 14. Jonathan Good, The Cult of St. George in Medieval England (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2009), 65. 15. Schama, Citizens, 234. 16. Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), 34, 54. 17. Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (London: Frederick Warne, 1908), 4-10.

I saw this format in a book once but I can’t remember which.

• You’ll note that some of the references in the example above are full ones, while others are abbreviated. That is, Eamon Duffy’s book gets the full title, plus city of publication, publisher, and year of publication, while we don’t even know Wheeler’s first name, the full title of his book, or any of the publication information. This is because Wheeler’s book must have already been cited in the first eleven notes in our hypothetical piece. There, we would have read:

Kenneth Wheeler, Cultivating Regionalism: Higher Education and the Making of the American Midwest (DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011), 42.

In a similar fashion, a citation for Duffy’s book following note 17 would read simply:

Duffy, Stripping, 45.

The idea is that you’re actually following along with the notes as you read the article, so you don’t need to give all the publication information every time you cite the same piece. “Oh yeah,” you say to yourself when you read footnote 12 – that was the Wheeler book that NIU Press published in 2011, previously cited in note 4. But what if you can’t remember every piece that’s cited – or only check the notes occasionally? Should we give full information in every note? By no means! That would take too much space. We could only give abbreviated information in every note, with a bibliography at the end, but a bibliography takes up space, too. This is not much of a problem for books, but it is for journal articles. Thus, we can do what Viator has done: give a helpful reminder of where the full information appeared in the first place. From an article I recently read (boldface added):

93 Otto Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice: History, Architecture, Sculpture (Washington, D.C., 1960), 30.

94 PL 129.724–726.

95 Demus, Church of San Marco (n. 93 above), 128-135.

• But note the publication information in n. 93: “Washington, D.C., 1960.” This is old-school: nowadays, the Chicago Manual of Style recommends City of Publication: Publisher, Year of Publication, so that the reference should read: “Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Library, 1960.” This was a necessary change, although many publishers, especially those based in the U.K., still adhere to the old City, Year model. I suppose that historically, listing the city would impute something about the book, as though national feeling of the publishers, or the legal regime under which the book was printed, would shape the contents. But most publishers are now multinational operations. Boydell only has two cities that it calls home; University of Toronto Press has three, and Penguin has several dozen. Listing any more than one is probably a waste of space – and even naming one city is not nearly as important now as simply naming the publisher. For it’s the publisher that determines the quality or political orientation of the work – Yale University Press being more trustworthy than Edwin Mellen, for instance. You can sometimes guess the publisher based on the city (there aren’t any other publishers besides Boydell in Woodbridge, Suffolk), but why not come right out and say it? Especially given how many publishers are in London or New York.

So I propose that we should get rid of the city entirely, and have the note read simply “Dumbarton Oaks Library, 1960” – this tells you everything you need to know!

(If we simply must indicate cities, though, let us, when noting American ones, use the older, irregular-length state abbreviations, like Ala., Okla., or Calif., and not AL, OK, or CA. These should really be reserved for postal addresses only.)

• But who reads books anymore? Aren’t they a dead medium? Isn’t everything we need to know on the Internet?

Well, yes, there’s a lot of information out there in digital form, accessible through the World Wide Web, and perhaps we should prepare ourselves for the day when no information will be communicated otherwise. In the meantime, however, many people are still composing text to be printed with ink on paper, and if you’re doing so yourself, and you’ve found something on the Internet that you want to cite, make sure that you don’t just print its URL in your note. I read a book once in which every one of the 700+ endnotes was nothing more than a URL! (Clearly, it had been originally composed as a web document, and the author rigged up an algorithm to convert the links into endnotes.) Even the books were cited as links to Google Books, or Amazon. (And none of the links had “accessed [date]” after it, so that one could check the references in the Internet Wayback Machine on the approximate date the author did, in case the link should rot).

I assume that the author of the book was in some kind of a rush to get it out in print form, but his citation protocol is just plain silly. I would much rather read:

David M’Clure and Elijah Parish, Memoirs of the Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, D.D., Founder and President of Dartmouth College and Moor’s Charity School (Newburyport, Mass.: Edward Little, 1811), 57.


Not only is the first note easier on the eyes, it allows one to look the book up in the library if one has access to a library, or on Google books if one has access to that. (I don’t believe that we need to specifically cite Google books if we have found something there. I trust that their scanners are working properly, and that the book we see online is the same one that we find in the library.)

As for purely online sources, there is a proper format for citing them too, e.g.:

Nathan Bedford Forrest, “Report of Maj. Gen. Nathan B. Forrest, C. S. Army, Commanding Cavalry, of the Capture of Fort Pillow,” Shotgun’s Home of the American Civil War, at (accessed June 9, 2016).

Note that the author and title of the document, and the title of the website where it appears, have been made manifest, in addition to the actual Internet address where you can find it all.

Note, also, that the format still says that this was found on the web, and there is utterly no reason to append “Web” to the end of the note. A few years ago students started doing this for Internet sources (and appending “Print” for paper-and-ink ones). I don’t know what genius came up with this custom, but it needs immediate deprecation! The format itself speaks!

• But if we are writing for the web: something I haven’t seen addressed anywhere else (although someone must have at some point) is the question of, stylistically, how aware online prose ought to be of its own hyperlinks. Ideally it should not be aware at all. Links are parallel to footnotes (or perhaps quod vide), and just as you can reprint an article omitting them, so also can you reprint a piece of web text without hyperlinks with no essential damage to the prose. However, a sentence reading:

Here is the original article, and here are some reactions

would not transfer well, given that the links must be there for the sentence to make sense (the two instances of “here” need them as referents). I suppose we should train ourselves to write like this:

Benedikt’s article appeared on Slate on August 29, and immediately sparked a number of reactions.

Without the links the sentence would require a bit of Googling on the part of the reader, but at least it would make sense grammatically.

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