The Technology of a Better Footnote

Footnotes -- or endnotes, or just notes; whatever you want to call them -- are a problem. They're a problem for writers and a problem for readers and a problem for typesetters and a problem for page designers. But maybe we're getting closer to fixing that.

I'm old enough to remember the nightmare of trying to manage footnotes in a typewritten essay: they were easy to misnumber in the text -- you'd go 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 -- and easy to get out of sequence in the notes proper, so that the reference in footnote 8 actually belonged to footnote 9. You'd realize that you left out a citation, and would have to roll the paper back into the typewriter and add the number in the space between sentences, getting the superscription as accurately placed as possible, which was never very accurate, so the whole thing always looked sloppy. Then you'd have to type out your footnotes page all over again, and with all those underlines and weird Latin abbreviations (ibid., op. cit.) and publication details that had to be handled just so. You were sure to make more mistakes, especially as the hour grew later -- and then, alas, earlier.

And it's never been great for readers either. The easiest thing for writers and typesetters is to have all the notes at the end, but that can annoy readers. This particular problem goes back a long way. When the philosopher and historian David Hume read the first volume of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire he loved the book but despised its endnotes. He and Gibbon shared a publisher, William Strahan, so Hume wrote to Strahan with a complaint: "One is also plagued with his Notes, according to the present Method of printing the Book: When a note is announced, you turn to the End of the Volume; and there you often find nothing but the Reference to an Authority: All these Authorities ought to be printed only at the Margin or the Bottom of the page." Each individual volume of the Decline and Fall was hefty -- as the Duke of Gloucester is reported to have said when presented with one, "Another damn'd thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?" -- and Hume was clearly irritated at investing the significant physical effort involved in turning to the end of the book only to find something like "Panegyr. Vet. vii.21." No fun in that.1

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(So why bother to look up the notes at all? Because some of them were zingers. A note on the emperor Gordian: "Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations; and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than for ostentation." And one correcting an error by a friend of his: "M. de Voltaire, unsupported by either fact or probability, has generously bestowed the Canary Islands on the Roman empire.")

So in many future editions of the Decline and Fall the simplest of references were moved to the margins of the page and the lengthier ones turned into footnotes. Or, in some cases, everything went into the margins:


A great improvement; but there continue to be many disagreements about what the proper placement of notes should be. While Hume may have appreciated easy access -- notes on the same page as the text -- many others find that method distracting, as it encourages the eye always to dart about in search of the references. These readers prefer all annotations tucked away at the end, so they can focus on the narrative or the argument and only seek out the references when there's a particular need to.

And it has proven exceptionally difficult to figure out how to handle notes in digital texts. A Wikipedia page -- like the one for Edward Gibbon, for instance -- turns all note numbers into links and provides a tiny clickable caret (^) to return you to where you were in the text. At Daring Fireball John Gruber prefers a slight variation on this, with turnaround arrows (↩) instead of carets pointing you back to where you were. But these approaches require hopping around and are thereby disruptive to the reading experience.2

This is also true of e-readers: try reading Gibbon on a Kindle or Nook and you'll find that when you click on a link your page disappears and is replaced by another, the one with the note on it. Super-disruptive. Something similar can happen with the new phenomenon of the book-as-app, as Robert Moore has commented in regard to The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet:

Like in the novel itself, the pages of the app come packed with marginalia penned by the precocious 12-year-old narrator. But due to the narrowness of the iPad screen, you can't read the marginalia without first dragging them to the middle of the page--they can become unglued, like Post-It notes--obscuring the main text. I quickly grew to resent these little pieces of paper that kept slipping around, pulling my attention from the story at hand. It was like flipping through a scrapbook, except no one had bothered to tape anything down.

My friend Brian Phillips, at his site The Run of Play, made a lovely way to present marginal notes, which was adopted, somewhat less elegantly, by the coders at Grantland, where Brian now writes. These are real steps forward, though also steps backward, since they look somewhat like the marginal notes found in many editions of Gibbon.

But what's really got me excited these days is the method of presenting notes Marco Arment has recently come up with for the iPad and iPhone versions of Instapaper. Take a look at the simple little ellipsis used to indicate the presence of a note:

Instapaper1 copy.jpg

Easy to ignore; easy to tap. And when you tap, you get this:

Instapaper2 copy.jpg

Tap again and it disappears. (The iPhone version looks slightly different but is functionally the same.) This is pure coding elegance: simple, straightforward, attractive, usable. Has the ancient problem of the footnote finally been solved?3

1 Almost everything I know about footnotes I learned from Anthony Grafton's wonderful book The Footnote: A Curious History.

2 Also, consider how closely these complexities resemble the complexities of online attribution that Megan Garber recently wrote about.

3 The Israeli film Footnote is probably not very germane to this discussion, but I thought I should mention it anyway.