Looking for the Footnotes?

One of the books that I am currently reading in preparation for my Fall Semester course on Abraham Lincoln is Orville V. Burton’s The Age of Lincoln.  I noticed early on the lack of footnotes, but didn’t realize until later that Burton or the publisher had decided to place them online as part of the book’s website.  The notes are broken down by chapter and each section begins with bibliographical essay followed by the individual notes, which include links to primary documents and other sources where available.  This is the first time that I’ve seen this approach to documentation utilized. 

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Julie Roy Jeffries did something similar with her biography of Narcissa Whitman about 15 years ago. The book was not footnoted, but in the preface she mentioned that a complete and footnoted MS had been placed in certain archives. I just googled about and it does not seem that footnoted MS is online anywhere.

I really dislike this approach, I think it discourages a scholarly reading of the work. But I understand the financial straits of so many academic publishers and I fear this is the wave of the future.

I don’t know if I am necessarily against this approach, though I wonder if this particular example is a good example. As I stated in the post I like the idea of being able to link directly to a document or other source, which gives the reader a chance to judge the interpretation. I can easily see Ed Ayers utilizing this approach in his book _In The Presence of Mine Enemies_ which is based entirely on sources from the Valley of the Shadow project. In that case the links would connect directly with the primary sources.

Back in the late 1980s I worked as Vernon Burton’s teaching assistant and research assistant at Illinois. Even then he was alert to the possibilities of computers and the internet. His book _In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions_ is based on an amazingly wide database, which I believe at one time was on IBM cards. He loaned me the first PC I ever had, and he developed with John Lynn and Steve White the first computer-based instructional program I ever knew about. That he would use the net to expand his notes is right in character for one of the profession’s true pioneers (and good guy’s too).

I’m not sure how I feel about posting footnotes online rather than including them in the book–I favor having one’s research readily available–but I do think that the web gives new opportunities to provide extra information without eating up valuable territory between hardcovers. A recent, very effective example is Eric Wittenberg’s regimental history Rush’s Lancers, which includes a 94-page roster of the regiment available online at his publisher’s website (see http://www.westholmepublishing.com/rushslancers.html). If included in the book, my understanding is that Eric would have had to give up maps, illustrations or other text to make space. One possibility for the future is to make available online things like orders of battle, which can take up dozens and dozens of pages, are ignored by many readers, and are readily available online in any event.

Kind regards,
Russell Bonds
Marietta, Georgia

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