Follow that footnote!

Source: Giphy

If you’ve never thought about footnotes before:

In many of the texts we read, you’ll see at the end of the sentence a little number hovering in the air. 1. like this!

The technical term for that hovering is “superscript”, literally “written higher”. Its counterpart written here is called “subscript”, meaning “written lower”.

Scholars use these numbers to indicate information at the bottom of the page or at the end of the book. That can sometimes be very useful information: explanations, a funny anecdote that is only tangentially connected, but also: sources consulted and with the specific location of the information used in that section of the text. It’s usually considered information that is useful, but would only get in the way of the flow of the main text.

How to use footnotes like a pro(fessional historian)

In the discipline of history (which this course is), we use Chicago “Notes and Bibliography” style, and you’ll notice historians use footnotes or endnotes to indicate the sources they consulted. Because I draw on a lot of different sources, and publishers have funny rules, not everyones follows the Chicago style, but you get the idea.

These notes are like lab reports: the writer allows you to verify the information they provide by referring you back to the source, check if they made any errors in interpretation, or if other, alternative interpretations are possible.

But the notes also allow you to dive deeper into the topic, if you’re curious. And by now, you know I’m all about curiosity: if you’re curious about something, you’ll find a way to learn it.

One of the quickest ways to build a bibliography (a list of books, articles and other sources on a specific topic) is to scour a text you already read about that topic, and pick from the notes the sources that appear to be most promising, based on the title, or the additional information the writer gives in the footnotes, e.g. “For more information on X, see also Y.”

How to do this extra credit exercise

Throughout this exercise, keep good track of the texts and sources you consult, so you can share it with us in a blog post. It’s a bit like “Down the Rabbit hole”, but the scholarly version, or what I had to do before we used the internet for this. (Yes, I am that old!)

IMPORTANT This exercise will work best with journal articles or books that are available in electronic format in Trexler. If you are on campus and the library is open, you can call up books and physical copies of journals, too. Some of the PDFs I have provided are available in Trexler, too. If in doubt, you can contact me, always happy to help you discover how stuff works!

  • Pick from the past few weeks, or this week, a “starting text” which contains foot- or endnotes. This can also be from a source you used for a Show and Tell project.
  • Find a note that refers to another text: a monograph, a chapter in an edited collection, a journal article. Make sure that source is a language you can read!
  • If necessary, go to the bibliography in the back of your “starting text” to identify the exact source:
    • Very often, the footnote/endnote in a monograph only gives you the basic information of the reference, and the full bibliographic reference is in the “bibliography” in the back. That means you need to dig around a bit. This is usually the case for books written by a single author on a single topic (“monographs“). “Edited volumes” (multiple authors each writing a single chapter), and “journal articles” (in serials published at regular intervals) will often have the full reference at the first mention of the source (so you need to go to an earlier note), or in a bibliography at the end of the chapter/article.
  • Go to the Trexler library catalogue, and see if you can find the source mentioned in the note. Share with us what you find out about the source:
    • Do we have it in the library?
      • If it is an ebook or article: have a quick look. Would you like to read it? Why (not)?
    • If we don’t have it, can you find a book review?
      • What other information can you find about this text?
      • Are there any other works in the Trexler library catalogue by the same author? This can be tricky, because there are often different authors with the same name writing about vastly different topics. Adding “China” or “Chinese” sometimes helps to differentiate them.
    • Would any of these materials be useful if you want to do a small research project on a topic related to the course?

Write up your adventures with the footnote, including the starting text, the reference in the note, and what you found/answers to the above questions, as a blog post. Use the word “Footnote” in the title of your post, and add the tag “extra” to your post. Here’s an example of a student who did this exercise last semester

When you’re ready, read this declaration carefully, and head on over to Canvas to collect your points in the Declaration quiz

I picked a text related to our course with a foot- or endnote leading to another source, and located that source, or more information about that source.
I wrote a blog post detailing my search process, and answered the questions given in this exercise
I used the word “Footnote” in the title, and added the tag “extra” to my post, and put it in category hst271

1 Hi! This is where you find the information connected to the note I inserted all the way at the top of the page. In a book or journal article, you’d often find here a reference to another article or book, for instance: For an entertaining but soundly researched work on the history of the footnote, please consult Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (London: Faber and Faber, 2003).