A simple working definition of the footnote would be a note that is placed at the bottom of a page or manuscript, commenting on or citing a reference for a designated section of the text. It will be connected to, but of lesser significance than the part that it is supporting. Footnotes are different to endnotes in that they appear at the bottom of the page, and not at the end of the text, as endnotes do. The two forms of referencing are generally never mixed in one work.

In social science works (history, for example), the use of footnotes is mandatory. Grounds for the necessity of footnotes include: the use of a quote taken directly from another author’s book or article; the inclusion of statistics that were not deemed by our own conclusions; when a very precise idea (or ideas) are taken directly and literally from someone else’s argumentation; and the inclusion of supplementary information that allows us to define a concept included in our work in more depth.

Now that we have a basic understanding of the use of a footnote, we can explore its history in more depth.  Anthony Grafton, in his book tells us that in the eighteenth century, the historical footnote was a form of literary art.  Many authors battled to have the most impressive footnotes in their texts, something that would seem rather farfetched to many of us today.

Footnotes serve the purpose of identifying primary evidence that guarantees a text’s novelty in substance, and also of recognising secondary works that do not undermine its novelty in form and thesis.  Footnotes reinforce the effort of the author; they are testimony to the great deal of work that they have put in.  The credibility of their work is in turn increased.

On closer inspection, Grafton informs us, appearances of uniformity are deceptive.  To those of us who are not experts on the footnote, they seem to be ‘solid and fixed.’  They are evidently of much more importance than we may think.  Furthermore, the blatant neglect to acknowledge a source would be just as noticeable as the inclusion.  With most reading experiences, it would be quite obvious to us if the content was not the original work of the author.

The footnote varies greatly in nature and in content.  Similarly to controlled experiments, they appear in ample forms to challenge all biographers.  They vary not only in style, but also in origin.  Some consist of long lists of archival citations, documenting knowledge on possibly quite an obscure subject.

Footnotes demand attention.  They are an object of sharp debate.  Some people maintain that the presence of footnotes disrupts the narrative – meaning that their existence makes reading quite distracting and inconsistent.  Nonetheless, the requirement for such referencing far outweighs the negatives.  The state and form of the footnote will no doubt alter itself in times to come.

Grafton, Anthony. The Footnote. London: Faber & Faber Ltd, 1997.

Contributed by Samantha Gallery.


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