In “The Archive(s) Is a Foreign Country,” Terry Cook references Brien Brothman’s assertion that the marginalization of archival sources, and archivists, in historical writing manifests in the use of footnotes and endnotes.
I can appreciate the metaphor, shunting the archival material into the ghetto of the book, creating intellectual and visual distance between it and the substance of the historian’s argument. But I think its value is mostly as metaphor.*
I’d become rather comfortable, in an organic and non-reflexive way, with the concept of history as a humanistic discipline, more than† a social science; this has recently been followed up by encounters with explicitly humanistic works and Gaddis’s historian-as-natural-scientist musings. Plus, I’ve always found APA in-line citation clunky. So on grounds fuzzily philosophical and aesthetic, an anti-footnote argument rubs me the wrong way.
More practically, I think it’s a flawed argument. Notes are often more substantial than mere citations. It’s true that a page-long discussion of a scholarly dispute, if included in a note, falls outside the main text and is easier for the reader to ignore. But a well-structured book needs to limit tangents—otherwise, the author risks derailing the main arguments. In this respect, foot- and endnotes aren’t the marginalization of important information; they’re space for the inclusion of material that is interesting, situates the author in current scholarship, provides context for the sources: in short, material that may be important, but not necessarily directly relevant to the main argument.
Discussing archival issues in front- and back-matter is also potentially useful. (Not too terribly useful, admittedly, if the discussion is little more than namechecking helpful archivists. But my point‡ is about positioning, not content.) What better place to explore issues pertinent across many of your sources?
Notes and front- and back-matter are, IMHO, exactly the right place to discuss archival sources and issues. The questions of why authors do not take advantage of these spaces to examine matters that can significantly impact their work, and how they might be encouraged to do so, are, I think, separate issues.
* That is, unless the goal is to reframe all historical writing as explicitly about archives, or reimagine the structure of books. There’s a happy medium between those radical responses and a self-conscious, nuanced consideration of how archival sources impact one’s argument.
† As opposed to “rather than”: I tend to find such distinctions more valuable as adjectives than pigeonholes, and I’m generally a fan of saying “it’s a continuum” as a way of talking about subjects that have often been reduced to artificial binaries.
‡ It’s also a point of Brothman’s, but perhaps not the only one; I’ve not read his piece, just Cook’s summary.