Back in September, Jeremy Boggs asked how historians use or should use footnotes on the web. A brief discussion of when they’re useful and what they should contain followed.

Coincidentally, I had just recently finished the database structure and some basic code to process references and citations on AotW for that very purpose. Jeremy’s entry made me think about the subject a little more.

Not being an academic, I felt unqualified to comment then, but it seems to me that footnoting on the web has nearly the same benefits and requirements as it does in print. So to footnote or not isn’t a tough decision; it just depends on what kind of website you run. Where you put the notes (i.e., bottom, side, tool-tip) and how you jump back from the note to the text again seem minor distinctions as well. Finally, on whether to hyperlink directly to online sources, I do it in the footnote rather than in the body text so as not to lose the reader entirely.

Here’s how I’ve implemented footnotes on AotW:

  • I have database tables for references (bibliographic records), citations (instances of specific cites or stand alone notes), and locations (association of citations with specific articles and their sequence on the page), all linked by numeric keys.
  • While drafting an item for publication on the site, I create biblio reference records for each source and citations for each individual note using html forms, which then populate the data tables. There are variations in citation style for different print and electronic sources, so I identify several categories and gather slightly different data for each. Citation data also includes a “switch” to turn bibliographic display on or off, so these can be used strictly as endnotes, if needed.
  • I then paste standard html code in the body of the new article where the superscript reference is needed, vis:

code snippet for superscript citation link

This contains both a hyperlink to the footnote and a link ID so readers can return to the same spot in the main text after viewing the note. Only the number changes for subsequent citations in a page.

  • Then I publish the piece to the database.
  • When a user requests the article, the code in an AotW master template gathers the contents of the page, and looks to see if there are applicable footnotes in the database. If there are, it adds them, in sequence, to the bottom of the requested page. The number on each resulting footnote is also a link back to the referring text.
  • Because references and citations are in the database independent of the site content, I can slice/dice and display them in a number of ways. So far, I’ve only used this power to start a site bibliography.

So, that’s how it works. I’ve probably made it sound tougher than it is. See a simple example in action.

Creating and inserting notes and citations does slow me down. It can sometimes be painful – tracking volume and page numbers, getting cites in sequence, and so on – but I don’t believe AotW would be as valuable without them. I plan to keep using them.

Now that I’m sensitive to it, I notice that a few online history sites cite their sources, but most don’t. Very few use linked footnotes.To me, the issues about footnoting are:

  • Is footnoting on the web like trying to teach a pig to sing?
  • What do studious readers expect from a Civil War website, if anything?
  • Am I taking this too seriously?

Perhaps the web is seen as more like popular than scholarly history: sources, particularly footnotes, distract the reader. Require too much thought. Open scary paths of exploration. Get in the way of the story.

Wouldn’t want that.

2 Responses to “Footnotes in online history”

  1. Jeremy Boggs says:

    Nice article Brian. On a technical note, it would be a lot easier for you to add the “id=’note_1′” inside the link with the href to the actual note, instead of adding an empty <a> in front. With anchors, you don’t have to use an empty link tag; you can use any element with a specific “id” attribute. Semantically-speaking, its better (in my opinion) to put the “id” attribute on the actual element the link will refer to. You can seem my example page at I need to write up something about this. Maybe I’ll get to that this weekend!

    I’m still uncertain how to use footnotes on the web. Most bloggers I see using footnotes use them to make “aside” or tangential comments or observations. And while quite a few bloggers are adamant about getting cited for their work, is linking back to a site really a citation? Is the link in your post back to my post on footnoting a citation? It seems that the web has altered how we give credit or cite other materials, but I’m not sure exactly how or to what extent they have been altered. I don’t think you’re taking it too seriously; It’s an interesting question. I’ll definitely have to think about it some more!

  2. Brian Downey says:

    Thanks for the reply, Jeremy. More good questions.

    I’ll simplify the html for the “id=”, good idea.

    I think footnotes in blogs are overkill, unless the blog is a primary publishing vehicle. Mine certainly isn’t. Given the nature of the web and blogging, links/trackbacks are the norm, citations not. Nor would I expect otherwise.

    I would use standard form citing a blog entry as a reference in a more significant – or more ‘permanent’ – work. I don’t know that there’s a universal approach shaking out among bloggers, for those who would be credited. I haven’t seen discussion about it, anyway.

    btw, your ClioWeb link to Phu’s theme-a-day was the final push off the fence and into the blogworld for me. I see you’re building a set of themes also. Best wishes on that –


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