On Footnotes

The purpose of notes is to present citations, background, or further discussion and background that doesn’t belong in the text. (Also: snarky jokes.) The design challenge of notes is to 1) indicate that there is a note, 2) provide a reference to that note, and 3) print the note in a place where it can be accessed. The very existence of notes implies 4) not unduly interrupting the flow of the main text.

Footnotes and endnotes are in essential agreement on points 1 and 2. They provide superscripted numerals (or occasionally symbols) as a reference key, with the corresponding number opening the note in the notes section. Parenthetical notes are barbarous and should not be used by anyone, ever. For those who are required to use them for departmental reasons,1 my sympathies for finding yourself amongst fools.

Where footnotes and endnotes disagree is along the spectrum of design challenges 3 and 4. Endnote advocates seem to prefer 4 to 3, keeping the main text clean and relegating notes to a separate section that nobody ever reads so that authors can be dishonest. In other words, endnotes advocates are either liars or supporters of liars.

Footnotes, on the other hand, favours design challenge 3 by placing the relevant note content at the bottom of every page where they are easily accessed. Properly designed footnotes will never interrupt or distract from the main text, so 4 is not really an issue.2 The beauty of footnotes is that they can and are read when desired. Nothing beats a good joke or rambling tangent in a footnote.

Parenthetical notes succeed on points 1-3. You are aware there is a note, you don’t need to track it down, and it is immediately accessible. But it is such a catastrophe on point 4 that it produces ugly text that no sane person wants to read. Because it interrupts the text so oafishly, those who employ parenthetical notes never use them for more than citations, which is the least interesting (but still needed) form of note.

These three notes forms are print-based and you may at this point be wondering how this all translates onto the web. This very article utilizes footnotes, which could seem like an attempt to inappropriately stuff print metaphors into a foreign medium. What about notes designs that are web-native? Since there’s no pagination on the web, aren’t my footnotes really just endnotes with easier access throught linking?

When it comes to reference notes, the web is unbeatable: it has hyperlinks. Notes are unnecessary for web-based references that can be linked to, but what if you’re referencing a print book with page numbers? Links won’t do the job (yet?). Hyperlinks do, however, make notes on the same page more immediately accessible through same-page anchors (it’s how they’re accessed on this page3), but it’s still somewhat annoying to have to click.

What I’m even more interested in are digital notes implementations that try something new within the medium. I think that the HTML/CSS/JavaScript web stack offers some fascinating possibilities (as do native apps). Instapaper, for example, recently implemented a digital-native notes design in its recent 4.0 release.

I have an idea or two for notes on web pages that I don’t want to discuss until I can show them. I love using notes as a writer, and love reading them as a reader, so I’d really love to create something that moves the form forward. Until then, keep thinking in tangents and noting it: that’s where the gold is.

  1. I simply cannot comprehend anyone choosing to use parenthetical notes. If you use or advocate for them you have been brainwashed and probably drool a lot. 
  2. Despite my obvious favouritism towards footnotes, large quantities of footnotes produce problems. Trouble occurs if more than 1/3 of a page is taken up with footnotes, or if a single note needs to be spread across multiple pages. 
  3. I now write all of my blog posts in Markdown, which is a great way to write. I use my own fork of the Markdown on Save WordPress plugin, although my changes are being merged in. 

Academic Blogging Redux

I posted on academic blogging recently, and the conversation enlarged at a post on Scot McKnight’s blog. This discussion then spilled into a discussion in my history class today, which had some good thoughts raised. Here’s some thoughts that I’d like to collect from those sources and from my own thoughts as to the current state of academic blogging.

  1. Blogging is not currently regarded as a reliable source within academia (generally speaking)
  2. Blogging is one of the best sources for recent history (quick, highly responsive publishing)
  3. Blogging can be looked at as a primary source, much like other diaries, memos, etc.
  4. Blogging currently lacks conventions that would allow for us to easily ascertain reliability
  5. Blogging is not distinguishable from other Internet sources according to the major citation standards.

So, that’s things as they stand right now. What I’m interested in is the following question: what can blogging do to become more recognized as a reliable source? Many answers to the question will involve similar mechanisms to the print world (ie. editorial oversight, peer reviewing), but I’m not particularly interested in those, as they erode the unique characteristics of blogging.

So, I’ll venture a few answers to my own question and hopefully get some discussion happening. I’ll ask it again: what can blogging do to become more recognized as a reliable source?

  1. Include biographical details (preferably an “About” page). This helps to communicate to your readership the authority that you have on a given topic. This could include qualifications, credentials, experience, and other things pertinent to you knowing what the heck you’re talking about.
  2. Cite your sources. There’s simply no way around this. Contextualizing what you have to say within a larger body of knowledge is one of the fundamental laws of respectable scholarship. I would also suggest that bloggers try to cite as much print material as possible. This might seem a bit counter-intuitive, but print sources are at this point held to be more authoritative.
  3. Have a comment area. Not only that, but build a lively comment area where respectful dialogue, dispute and argument takes place over the content of the post. This type of commenting can be a way to expose your ideas to the (hopefully) the same kind of criticism that editorial oversight and peer-review systems accomplish.

So, once more, what can blogging do to become more recognized as a reliable source? (Feel free to disagree with me too!)

Blogging: A Reliable Academic Source?

I had a great conversation with one of my professors after class today. (Of course, I have to say that because he might be reading this!) We talked about topics far and wide pertaining to the life of the Christian who wants to be a faithful intellectual.

As exciting a topic as that is, it’s not what I am particularly aiming at for this post. As our conversation meandered around (as good conversations do), we started talking about the issue of academics and blogging. There’s a ton of useful, relevant writing occurring on blogs, much of it by academics with excellent credentials. However, this is a new medium for the academic world (and really, the whole world), so how to handle blogs as valid sources—if indeed they can be valid sources—is a pressing topic in today’s world.

While I am certainly interested in what my readers think about this, I’m especially curious to know if anyone here knows of any useful articles, blogs, etc. that describe the issues here and the criteria for judging blogs to be useful. We’re actually going to talk about this in class next week, so any sources that can be used as a basis for this discussion would be greatly appreciated!

EDIT: I emailed Scot McKnight about this as I posted it, and he decided that it was a good enough topic to dedicate a post at his site to. There’s some good discussion happening there.