A Necessity Outlived

This is a rather idle comment, so don’t take it too seriously and get all outraged. I’m sitting here putting in, and fixing, footnotes in my book. I try to put them in as I’m first writing, but sometimes I write one from memory and don’t pause to look it up; or I find it in another book and don’t have the original book to look it up in; or I’m quoting something I had used in a less scholarly publication; or I’m just on a tear and don’t want to pause for footnotes. So I’m making a final pass, and I see an incomplete footnote. It’s from a book I already returned to the library. So I put the phrase in Google, and it takes me to a page of that book in Google Books, and I put in the page number. The next footnote is from a book that’s sitting on my piano, but it’s six feet away, and I’m comfortable in my Adirondack chair with my cigar. So I put the phrase in Google, and it takes me to Google Books and I get the page number and publication information. And then I start imagining footnotes I’d like to put in. Like, I had wanted to quote Richard Strauss’s boast that he could represent a fork in music, but I’d never really read that, I only heard it. So I Google “Richard Strauss” + fork, and bang!, fourth try, there it is in Brian Gilliam, The Life of Richard Strauss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 81. And it’s even better: Strauss claimed that he could differentiate between a fork and a knife in his music. And since I’ve looked up a hell of a lot of published footnotes myself lately, it occurs to me that it would be simpler for my reader to put the phrase in Google himself and find where I quoted it from than it would for him to note the chapter and page number he’s in and leaf through the footnote section in the back of the book until he finds the right footnote number.

So remind me: why, in the age of the internet, are we still using footnotes?


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  1. Bill B. says

    In case electricity ceases, all batteries die, and there’s an abandoned library down the road after the apocalypse.

    KG replies: You think I’m going to care about accurate citations at that point?

  2. says

    Sometimes the reader is comfortable in his chair with his cigar, and the computer is six feet away.

    KG replies: Well I wish endnotes – which I’m really talking about rather than footnotes – weren’t so complicated to look up. You have to go back and see what chapter number you’re reading, because sometimes they’re listed by chapter, and look at your page number, because each page usually has a page-number range too. I didn’t mind them when they were actually footnotes. Why do we all put up with this?

    • says

      You know, I usually read the endnotes either before or after I read the chapter, so I’m not flipping back and forth. In these translations I’ve been doing, I keep the endnotes to a minimum: just note where the text was first published, and briefly explain topical references, neither of which is easily available online, particularly in English. If readers want more detail, I assume they can follow up with their gizmos.

  3. says

    My stab at answering the question: if there’s a footnote, then the reader at least will know that the author made sure Google may come up with the reference.

  4. ben says

    Not everything is on google books, but could be gotten from a library (if necessary by ILL), if the bibliographical material is there.

    I do think footnotes are much preferable to endnotes, but I tend to just use two bookmarks.

  5. mclaren says

    There’s actually a very good reason why we still use footnotes in the age of the internet.

    On the internet, you must pay to put a page up and you must pay and pay and keep paying to keep that page up. The instant you stop paying, that internet page disappears.

    By contrast, you (the author) do not have to pay to keep a book on the shelf in the local library. It stays there forever.

    Google may be a big corporation, but it will not last forever. Someday — probably much sooner than you think — google will vanish. And that google books webpage containing those quotes will all vanish along with it.

    Personal experience: I spent about 15 years of my life entering roughly half of Ivor Darreg’s musical writings into the computer and whipping ‘em into shape using various desktop publishing programs, and then exported ‘em into HTML format. Jonathan Glasier took some of those HTML files and put ‘em up on his sonic arts website. So some of Ivor’s writings about music became available for free, to everyone, on the internet.

    Look for the sonic arts website today (but in vain).

    It has vanished into the bit bucket, and Ivor’s online writings along with it.

    Nothing on the internet is permanent. In fact, everything on the internet is writing on water. It disappears when you blink your eyes. That’s why we use footnotes on paper, referring to other books printed on paper. Those don’t vanish. They will still be there when you walk into the local university library, even 50 years from now.

    KG replies: Well said.