It’s not just that I think Chicago Style is more readable

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.


2 thoughts on “It’s not just that I think Chicago Style is more readable

  1. Hi:

    Just ran across your commentary on footnotes. I like your idea of a continuum between the “body” of the text and the footnotes, which, by the way, are quickly becoming endnotes, with a quick reference in the body of the text to author (appearing in the bibliography ) and a page number. My worry, or rather my observation, is that “sources” …archives” and so on (perhaps history “itself” ) are seeming less and less consequential in this age of increasingly untethered “information.”

    Cheers and thanks for chiming in.

  2. Hi Brien, thanks for clicking over.

    I agree: whether or not it wants to be free, information needs to remain tethered. (And I’m aware that my initial post serves as a good example of untethered—or at least tenuously tethered—information. That I self-consciously drew attention to the point, and wrote in an informal venue, doesn’t change the fact that I was commenting on a few lines summarizing points raised in an article which I had not yet read, written in direct response to other works which I still have not yet read. Offhand commentary is the first step of citogenesis.)

    I have some hope that instead of seeing a text plus citations on the periphery, works of history (and other disciplines) will be viewed as more tightly connected to their source material (archival or otherwise). If the material cited is more easily accessible, if the web metaphor of the World Wide Web works its way into the brain, if Terry Pratchett can teach people that footnotes are worth reading, if the “click here” conditioning of Wikipedia and every other online site ever can be leveraged to train people that not all relevant information can be presented in a strictly linear form on the page, then the contextualization of the sources and the author’s work may start falling into place in a pleasing manner.

    I am undoubtedly being overly optimistic. Usually I go the other way, and while I think it’s a pretty awesome tool, the Web (as metaphor or actual tool) is not a panacea for anything. But still, I hope there will be some benefits to the ways in which our brains are, apparently, being rewired.

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