Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Take note - but which kind?

A recent discussion (and my recent read of Beaudry's "Findings") makes me wonder about Footnotes vs. Endnotes. Publishing houses nowadays seem to prefer endnotes - because it makes page layout easier and a little nicer for the eye not to have footnotes sparsely dotting the bottom of the page. However, for reading, endnotes are much less practical - because looking up an endnote means to put your thumb into the book at the place you are right now, go to the back of the book, find the endnote, read the endnote, and then go back to the front of the book and try to get back into the flow of the argument. This takes much more brainpower than just shifting the eyes to the bottom of the page - and thus will regularly exceed the capacity of the "Working Memory", breaking the flow of the reader. I have also made the experience that endnotes get read (and thus used) much less frequently than footnotes, because it is more trouble to get to them.

And now I'm wondering: Am I the only one who strongly prefers footnotes? Are the publishers right in placing looks over footnote access, do readers prefer endnotes in general? What do you think? If you look to the right side of this page, you can find a little poll to mark your preference - and of course, comments explaining your vote are highly welcome!

8 comments:

Phiala said...

My preferred arrangement: in-line citations for source material, and footnotes for longer explanations. I agree that endnotes are much harder to use - I usually keep multiple bookmarks in a book like that. (Those medieval multi-strand fingerloop ones are great for that.)

I'm a discipline where in-line citations are the norm, and I find that it makes it much easier to keep track of the origins of ideas than putting that material in any kind of note. Except for the ones with in-line numbered references - that's much worse.

But of course we rarely get to choose - each publishing house has its own ideas.

Arachne said...

I totally agree with Phiala - with Harvard-like citations you see right away where things come from. It's the notation I was first taught to use, so it's the one I feel most comfortable both reading and using.

But explanations in footnotes shouldn't be too long-winded - if a footnote takes up half the page, it's probably important enough to be worked in the text in one way or another...to me, a footnote should never be allowed to take over from the main text... For example, Laura F. Hodges's "Chaucer and Costume" is a real struggle to read because of the overlong footnotes...

Jola said...

I was part of discussion on this not too long ago with individuals in the publishing industry, as well as other academics. The message that came through from the publishing side was that, even though the academics were by-and-large pro-footnotes (as I am), it's cheaper for the publishing houses to use the endnote format. I don't know enough about the technology to understand precisely why this would be. But I will throw in there that the absolute worst is the social sciences format (occasionally seen in mass-market history texts, such as the recent "American Lion" on Andrew Jackson), which has endnotes that aren't signposted in the actual text. While it's one thing to put your thumb in the book and looking up a reference at the back, it's worse when you don't even know if there is one and then you have to find the material by half sentence indicators.

Oh, and one final thought before I return to writing my chapter: footnotes provide the advantage of at a glance letting you know whether the additional material is simply a citation or a fuller discussion of some tidbit that doesn't naturally fit into the body paragraph. And in response to the two posters before me: I can't stand in-text citations. I find that all the parentheticals break the flow of the reading in a way that a superscript number never does.

tenthmedieval said...

I was raised on footnotes, but have had to submit enough stuff in inline format that I can see how it helps. However, I find it tricky to identify a cite easily from author-date unless I already know the subject backwards, so I much prefer author, short-title, and I've never seen that done inline. It would, I imagine, be pretty distracting if it were done. I still prefer footnotes, but I keep enough bookmarks handy that I can usually cope with the navigation.

As to the expense thing, this used to be because footnotes required using two sizes of type on a single page, which was harder to set up in the days of actual block and ink typesetting. I find it impossible to understand why this should still apply, however. When it's all being sent as information to a laser beam anyway, what difference does font-size matter? So I guess we'll see less of that as the market balances out?

A Life Long Scholar said...

I agree with preferring in-line citations for sources. I *hate* going to the effort to move my eyes to the bottom of the page (or far worse to the end of the chapter/article/book), only to find that the note contains naught more than the source for the information. However, I am willing to take the time to disrupt the flow of my reading to read a foot note that contains additional details or commentary that doesn't belong in the main text.

I dislike endnotes at all time, and do not think that the aggravation they cause are worth the savings in cost/effort to the publisher. Any decent word processing program can provide endnotes these days that adjust themselves to always fit on the correct page. The publisher gets no sympathy from me if they don't know how to use the programs available.

a stitch in time said...

Well, thanks everybody! I can see that I'm not alone with my strong dislike for endnotes. When I first read a book with in-line citations, I found it really strange, but these days I can also see how it helps. Being "raised" on footnotes, though, I prefer the superscript numbers and the note at the bottom of the page, because it disrupts the reading flow even less for me.

Digger said...

A little late to the party, but very happy to have found this blog (archaeology and stitching!). I prefer in-text citations for standard "this is where I got it" citations, and endnotes for supplemental information. I dislike footnotes; I find them busy on the page. I *really* dislike footnotes when then span pages. I *really really* dislike footnotes when I'm trying to use them because someone has made me do it, and Word mangles everything.

a stitch in time said...

Welcome Digger, and thanks for your input - and no, you are not late to the party, and I'm still collecting votes on the topic!
I don't mind footnotes as long as they don't regularly take about half the page or span pages - if it's that important, I think it should be in the text. And I think that in-text really might be keeping people from buying a book if they are not used to Harvard style...
And on an aside: If you wrangle with Word, there's a very nice and helpful webpage, www.editorium.com, that has lots of tips and instructions and add-ons (and has helped me a lot when layouting my thesis. Yes, in Word! Yes, successfully!)