This week’s New York Times Book Review includes an essay by Alexandra Horowitz straightforwardly-titled Will the E-Book Kill the Footnote?, in which she laments that footnotes become endnotes when books move from paper to screen. Horowitz suggests that while this change means that the main text of a book may be more easily read from start to finish, something is lost when the intrusive interruption of a footnote morph into the more easily ignored endnote. After all, how many people actually read endnotes?
This article reminded me of one published last year in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about link rot and footnote flight (paywall alert), which made some of the same points for academic texts that Horowitz makes for popular books: electronic writing may suffer from both losing footnotes as well as from link rot, in which hyperlinks go dead over time as the site or page linked to is moved or abandoned.
Both the conversion of footnotes to endnotes and link rot can affect anyone reading a text, scholars and students alike. For scholars, I have to assume that if the information is valuable enough to be used in a research project, the researcher will have the tenacity to track down the necessary sources, whether that means jumping back and forth between endnotes and the main text or searching for the new home of a page at the dead end of a link. While it can sometimes be annoying to have to spend time chasing citations, I think many scholars actually enjoy this kind of work (or maybe I’m just looking at the task through my librarian-glasses?).
Students are busy, so I’d bet that they’re less invested in reading endnotes in electronic texts (and even footnotes in print books), and more likely to see them as an aside or as unnecessary. Of course students are very familiar with jumping from link to link on the web, and now that web browsers support tabbed browsing the process of moving between hyperlinks and the main text can come very close to the experience of reading a print volume with footnotes. And what about Wikipedia, where hyperlinks and endnotes abound? It’s easy to draw parallels between the Notes and References at the bottom of most Wikipedia entries and the same in scholarly texts. Maybe electronic texts can effectively be used to encourage students to chase down those citations and read those extra words in footnotes and endnotes.