The footnote, the holdover of documentation from the pre-digital era, continues to be a mainstay in the online world, but should it be? Tim Parks ponders that question in the New York Review of Books blog, arguing that in many cases, footnotes have become tedious and unnecessary.
Parks points out that the widely accepted rules for footnoting — citing a particular edition of a work and a page number — are becoming obsolete as more people search electronic versions of texts. Such citations no longer provide necessary assistance to the reader, but tracking them down can be a burden for the author — especially if the author, too, is using electronic versions of books as reference material.
According to Parks:
It’s time to admit that the Internet has changed the way we do scholarship and will go on changing it….There is, in short, an absolutely false, energy-consuming, nit-picking attachment to an outdated procedure that now has much more to do with the sad psychology of academe than with the need to guarantee that the research is serious. By all means, on those occasions where a book exists only in paper and where no details about it are available online, then let us use the traditional footnote. Otherwise, why not wipe the slate clean, start again, and find the simplest possible protocol for ensuring that a reader can check a quotation.
That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Parks acknowledges the benefits of online text in researching his books, but ironically, he doesn’t seem to appreciate the benefits of publishing his works in electronic form.
As more people read electronically, the footnote is becoming an anachronism. I have referenced Parks’ essay in this post, but I don’t need a footnote. I’ve provided you with a hyperlink, allowing you to jump to the source material with one click.
I do a lot of technical writing these days, and while many companies still prefer footnotes, the form is being loosened to some degree to include hyperlinks. Even the PDF format favored for many white papers and essays has the ability to include hyperlinks in the footnotes.
When I submit my Texas Monthly column to the fact-checkers, it’s annotated almost entirely with hyperlinks — and nothing else.
Links, though, are just the beginning. Some ebooks already have the ability to call up footnotes embedded in the text, and platforms such as The Atavist are pioneering methods for embedding complete source materials, sidebars, interview excerpts and video directly into the narrative.
Rather than forcing readers to find the sources themselves, as Parks suggests, these new formats will enable writers to include all source material directly with their work, with each piece bookmarked to the relevant portions.
The rise of ebooks and online platforms is making writing more interactive. Sooner or later, that interactivity will filter into technical writing and even break down the “inertia in the academic world” that Parks decries. As technology advances and reading habits evolve, footnoes are quickly joining the second space after a period as another unnecessary holdover from the past.