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Footnotes or Endnotes

I know this is not the most consequential issue out there, but it is significant at least for those of us who read and write books.  When I read an academic book, I want there to be footnotes at the bottom of the page, not endnotes at the end of the book.  It is much more difficult to turn to the back of the book than to simply glance at the bottom of the page.  This is especially important for law books, because so much of the legal literature is placed in footnotes, including important substantive points.

Yet, publishers strongly favor endnotes.  My publisher claimed that the book would be cleaner and more readable without footnotes.  I am not exactly sure what that means, but I am guessing it is suggesting that readers like a page without footnotes.  Perhaps nonacademic readers like it, but academic readers do not.  And whether they are academic or nonacademic readers, I am sure all of them like a footnote when there is substantive content there.

I struggled for years reading Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty with endnotes. Those endnotes were a great course in the history of political philosophy, but one had to turn to the end of the book to see them (as well as the analytic table of contents).  Thankfully, a new edition of the book has been published with the endnotes moved to the bottom of the page — a great improvement.

What about technology? After some years of struggling, most new kindle books have a good system of endnotes.  One touches the endnote number and one is taken to the endnote at the end of the book.  One touches the endnote number again and is returned to the text.  That is certainly better than endnotes at the end of a paper book, but not as good as footnotes in a paper book, where you can tell at a glance whether there is a substantive note that might require reading.

Reader Discussion

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on May 02, 2014 at 21:09:30 pm

I could not agree with you more!

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Ralph A. Rossum
on May 02, 2014 at 22:04:44 pm

I will use your piece in my Research and Thesis seminar this summer (on MA thesis writing). Here's an article I use that supports your argument, though it comes at it from cyberspace. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748703939404574567981561373094

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Ken Masugi
on May 02, 2014 at 22:40:40 pm

I agree w/you Michael. The footnotes I find at the bottom of the pages of Raoul Bergers books tell us more substantively of what he is exemplifying, for me, for the reader, and for -- yourself.
Respectfully, one who always reads your essay blogs, John

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John E. Jenkins
on May 02, 2014 at 22:58:38 pm

I think it depends on what % of foot/end notes have substantive points. If a higher % do, then people want them right on the page, but if only a very small % do, then just leave them at the end. I think legal writing is a bit different in that people actually read the footnotes quite often and sometimes I actually learn new things from the footnotes. The VAST majority of other books on almost any other subject you will almost never learn anything from a footnote and they are included just to say "look im not making it up!"

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Anonymous
on May 02, 2014 at 23:01:10 pm

If you do have endnotes, you can probably change how you do it to remove most of the important points from the endnotes as no one should be expected to "go look up" every end note. Just keep the end note there in case someone wants the exact case reference.

With foot notes just keep the normal legal standard of including points that are not directly relevant to the issue you are talking about in the main part.

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Anonymous
on May 03, 2014 at 09:27:50 am

Anonymous,

I can not speak to the "vast majority" of non legal books, but what Mike writes here is absolutely true for works of academic history. Substantive footnotes are the norm in my discipline. End notes are a really cruddy compromise. Even worse are "hidden end notes" in which the note is not keyed to a number, but rather to a phrase. In this style of annotation the attentive reader must look to the back of the book after reading each paragraph--an absolutely awful imposition.

Footnotes are much the preferred method of annotation for a great many academic genres, and arguably for most expository writing. Mike is spot on here. Since type no longer is set manually, there is no excuse for presses to use anything else.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on May 03, 2014 at 14:31:06 pm

Absotively & Posilutely!!

footnotes, for sure, as lazy buggers such as I prefer our condiments right on the same table - not in the pantry - and condiments certainly enhance the flavor of any meal , literary or otherwise.

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gabe
on May 03, 2014 at 16:46:51 pm

There is something about this ultra-geekiness that is deeply comforting. This is a real issue for my husband, as well...it must go with the scholarly, analytical approach. Seems like a sign of health.

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aez
on May 05, 2014 at 22:28:36 pm

The great age of university publishing is ending. So this is moot, now.

But for academic books, the kinds U-Presses used to exist for, need footnotes. Commercial publishers, especially oriented towards public policy and public intellectuals, like Basic Books, need only have end notes. And the popular commercial press, increasingly, need only have the barest citations - increasingly online (and thus referable only to geeks like us - but there, at least).

Because of capitalism, let everyone be served: the general reader, the opinion leaders, and the true scholars and geeks. Everyone gets what they need, now.

As noted, the latest in Ebooks simplifies this division even more, making footnotes referable at a mere touch - and it gets even better: the reference comes up in a popup window - the full source at an electronic hot link. George Jetson coulda been a geek instead of a middle-class futuristic Ralph Cramden!

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Orson

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.