The Fall of the Footnote: Report on a Research Project

WESS Newsletter

Spring 2019, Vol. 42, No. 2

“The weapon of pedants, the scourge of undergraduates, the bête noire of the ‘new’ liberated scholar”—this is how Anthony Grafton characterizes “the lowly footnote,” the eponymous hero of his 1997 book, The Footnote: A Curious History. Not only does the footnote deserve a place of honor in the “evolution of modern scholarship,” argues Grafton, it also has a cultural significance far beyond its core function of reliably citing an author’s sources. Authors like Edward Gibbon, the historian of Rome, elevated it to an elegant feature of historical writing, while others weaponized it as a kind of stiletto to be employed against academic rivals. It is true that footnotes demonstrate their creator’s erudition—Grafton’s own book is replete with such extraordinary confections as “ . . . ibid., II, fol. lxx recto = 497; cf. fol. II, lxx verso = 500–501 . . .” extending across the bottom of almost every page and often reaching high up into it (see Fig. 2.). But additionally, a footnote, properly executed, can spare its author pages of argument, e.g.: “12 Had the author but consulted E. Haase, Einführung in die Literatur des Réfuge (Berlin, 1959), we might all have been spared the tedium of reading his prose . . .”

Its long and illustrious past notwithstanding, in the early 21st century the footnote is in crisis. The entire rich intellectual, intertextual world of the footnoted and often glossed citation, which depends for its utility on bibliotechnical clarity, distinctiveness, and fixity, has been upset by the 30-year rise of the World Wide Web. Increasingly, the raw material of much humanities and social science research—current events reporting, blogged opinion, government documents, literary production—is found not in books or journals, not even in newspapers, but off the traditional grid altogether: on websites, in blogs, tweets, emails, and discussion groups, many of these with the life expectancy of a fruit fly, measured in days, weeks, or at most a few months. Perhaps even worse, much of this content, by the time you see it, has been altered or adulterated (or “corrected”) in subtle ways from its original form—like the Trump Administration’s removal of occurrences of the term “climate change” from government websites—without anyone being the wiser. The consequence of this fluidity: Journal articles and new academic monographs are published with footnotes and bibliographies containing links which on the day of their release no longer connect to anything—or, worse, do connect, but to a hijacked or otherwise altered site. No wonder Jill Lepore concluded in an article for the New Yorker in 2015 that conducting, sharing, and reading research today based on open web content is “like trying to stand on quicksand.” As she writes: “The footnote, a landmark in the history of civilization, took centuries to invent and to spread. It has taken mere years nearly to destroy.” While largely resolved for journals under publisher control (with thanks to JSTOR, Portico, CLOCKSS, and LOCKSS), this ephemerality crisis “has so far not been adequately addressed for . . . web-at-large resources,” according to a recent report from librarians at Los Alamos National Laboratory. It is a crisis which comes at a point in time when the open web is of comparable cultural importance to what pamphlets, handbills, and posters represented in Reformation Germany or revolutionary France.

Yet even as the bibliographic universe is imperiled with collapse, forces are mobilizing to address the crisis. Over the last ten years, numerous articles in the scholarly and popular press (like Lepore’s) have identified the problem—and some have even proposed solutions. In 2016, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded the Center for Research Libraries in Chicago funding to develop an “integrated, self-sustaining, international cooperative framework to support area and international studies (AIS).” The chief goal of CRL’s Global Collections Initiative funded by this award has been to expand electronic access to primary source documentation and data from major world regions where the information landscape differs from that in the U.S. and Western Europe. For the first phase of this project, the focus was on harvesting and preserving web-based content from and about Latin America and the Caribbean. You can see several overview articles recording progress on this grant in the Winter 2019 issue of FOCUS on Global Resources.

I worked on this project for the CRL, an unlikely assignment for a Western Europeanist—since I speak neither Spanish nor Portuguese, nor for that matter Nahuatl, Quechua, nor any other notable Latin American language. But thanks to coaching and support from Latin Americanists and other area studies colleagues at the Library of Congress and several major web archiving programs across the country and in Europe, I was able to benefit from their insider’s perspective while still maintaining a Martian’s (=Germanist’s) eye for problems and progress encountered in archiving the Latin American and Caribbean web. I will let my report, published by CRL in February as “An Evaluation of Web Archiving Programs in the US Relevant to International and Area Studies: The Example of Latin America and the Caribbean” speak for itself. Meanwhile, however, here, in a newsletter for Europeanist librarians in the U.S., I want to focus more on some European connections I encountered during my research.

In fact, it has not been entirely unhelpful being a WESSie looking at Latin America, a very different—but historically connected—world region. In fact, much of the philosophical and methodological reflection about and the basic research into archiving digital ephemera, as well as the harvesting, preservation, discovery, and use of open web content, has come from Western Europe. Several European countries—Sweden, Denmark, the UK among them—were among the first worldwide to realize that web content needed to be collected by their national libraries and incorporated into depository legislation. Perhaps the leading historian of the web and a subtle philosopher and theoretician of web archiving is from Denmark: Nils Brügger, Head of the Centre for Internet Studies at Aarhus University. And early recognition of the impact of the volatility of web content on research and scholarly communication more generally—and the need to address it—has come from German scholars, among them Berlin media scientist Stefan Heidenreich; and institutions, among them the University of Heidelberg, specifically regarding international and area studies.

It was in correspondence with colleagues in Heidelberg active in web archiving that I encountered a name with a familiar ring to it: that of a sinologist, Prof. Dr. Barbara Mittler. Mittler? Where have we seen that name before? Many of us in the Germanist community worked closely with Prof. Dr. Elmar Mittler beginning in the 1980s, when he was director of the Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, later at Göttingen, and for many of us the collaboration with him continued well into the 21st century. (I saw Dr. Mittler most recently at a conference on monastic libraries in Oxford in 2012.) So I inquired, and, sure enough, Barbara Mittler is Elmar Mittler’s daughter, and she is now a distinguished professor—Chair of Modern China studies—at the University of Heidelberg. Most notably in our context is that a book she authored, A Continuous Revolution: Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture (Harvard University Asia Center, 2012), winner of the John K. Fairbank Prize in East Asian History awarded by the American Historical Association, represents one of the first comprehensive attempts to address the burgeoning footnote crisis in area studies research and publishing. It turns out that Barbara Mittler worked very closely with DACHS, the Digital Archive for Chinese Studies at Heidelberg, to create a stable and secure archive of all threatened digital sources she referenced in her book. Visit Heidelberg’s citation repository for East Asian Studies and you will see how this works: the original URL for each webpage cited in the book is given (along with the essential date of crawl), but also the archival URL, linking to the content as archived.

Why is this important?

Consider the case of a recent monograph in Latin American studies, Rebecca Galemba’s Contraband Corridor: Making a Living at the Mexico-Guatemala Border (Stanford UP, 2018). Upon its publication, the book’s bibliography already had numerous obviously last-minute disclaimers inserted: “link no longer available.” In some cases where this addendum was lacking, the website was dead nonetheless—or worse: for example, links to the “archive” of, the website of the CIP Americas Program based in Mexico City, redirected readers to a website offering cannabis derivative products. Although most web-savvy contemporaries know to avoid clicking promiscuously around on websites with possibly faked or suspected malicious content, this is surely the first time in the history of scholarship—or at least since the Spanish Inquisition—that readers expose themselves to actual harm by engaging with, of all things, a footnote. Perhaps it is time for a modern remake of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, where readers died terrible deaths from touching the poisoned pages of a book they are consulting? Though now, it would be from following links to sources contained in the footnotes of academic articles.

Or another example. Northwestern Latin Americanist Emily A. Maguire researches Cuban science fiction. In the absence of a robust publishing infrastructure as well as the result of strictures put in place by the Cuban state, new work is often circulated online—and then “backed up’ by individual readers on flash drives, kindles, sometimes in hard copy. Recognizing how fragile the domestic distribution infrastructure is (and how inevitably partial and shallow the coverage is by the Internet Archive), individual scholars in the United States and some other countries, e.g., Argentina, have used personal or their institutions’ websites to store and share copies of Cuba’s literary production. Yet how comprehensive is this coverage? And how will these sites be found by researchers? How durable and how well protected are they from intrusion, adulteration, or deletion? Will these sites be taken down or hidden away from crawlers when their individual faculty champions retire or relocate? Many supposed “web archives,” especially those compiled and maintained by individual scholars and academic departments, are more akin to the scrapbooks, filing cabinets, and collections of floppy disks scholars have traditionally used to save their primary sources, and are threatened by the same causes of rot which consume the sites they were created to preserve.

In scholarly communication, the neuralgic point here is—you guessed it—the footnote. Many scholars still insist on citing live (or once live) web URLs, even though they know these are not likely to last, and indeed may be deceptive, which is to say still live, but linking to altered content. Style manuals actually encourage this practice. The currently valid 8th edition of the MLA Handbook (2016) recommends (p. 48):

“While URLs define where online material is located, they have several disadvantages: they can’t be clicked on in print, they clutter the works-cited list, and they tend to become rapidly obsolete. Even an outdated URL can be useful, however, since it provides readers with information about where the work was once found.”

What would Anthony Grafton—or for that matter Edward Gibbon or Leopold von Ranke—have to say about a citation that leaves it to the reader to find (or not to find) and verify (or not to verify) an author’s sources? And about a style manual that refers to source citations as so much “clutter”? True: finding archived ephemera has never been a cake walk for readers of a scholarly work, just like locating an original of Luther’s 95 Theses (or a good facsimile copy) may require some work. But historically, in Scholarship 101, this has been a service an author performs for his or her readers: “These are the sources I used and this is where you can find them.” The MLA’s advice to authors to put the original location of web content in a footnote—if even that—is comparable to proposing to readers a journey to Wittenberg Castle to see if the 95 Theses are still nailed to the church door, rather than directing them to an archive where an original or high-quality facsimile is stored. The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition (released in November 2017) is not much better, but for more on this and other style guides, see my full report.

That report introduces several prominent web-archiving programs seeking to cope with the effects of website volatility. Rescuing the footnote from decay or irrelevance, however, is a different task, since it involves not only developing and refining the technology of accurately and securely archiving content from the open web, but also reforming scholarly discovery and citation practice and the curatorial and instructional scope of research libraries and research librarians. Academic writers—and this includes students—need to take ownership of their sources, making sure they are reliably retrievable by other scholars and general readers. Yes, that’s right: even individual authors should verify that their sources have been archived somewhere, and in case of doubt they should archive these sources themselves. There are a number of ways of doing this, cf., but one very easy one—see Fig. 4—was announced a few years ago by the Internet Archive. Unfortunately, it is still too little known—and therefore unexploited—by students and scholars. For this reason, consciousness raising is necessary, and this article has been written to that end. Professional associations need to promote robust citation practices by their members to privilege stable sources over evanescent “live web” ones. And librarians need to work with their communities to increase awareness of “safe footnoting”—or as part of what the University of Michigan’s Megan Sapnar Ankerson calls “digital archive literacy.”

If we don’t start taking action now, the first quarter of the 21st century will go down in history (if history is still being recorded) as the beginning of the end of the humble but valiant footnote, reducing it to . . . a mere footnote to history. Oh, and if you are missing footnotes in this article, you’ll find them all in the full version of the report linked above. Provided, of course, that both it and this article have been reliably archived.

Jeff Garrett
Librarian Emeritus
Northwestern University