On Footnotes and Doing History

Lisa Clark Diller

I recently picked up Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History (Harvard University Press, 1999) in an attempt to find more coherent ways to talk to my students about citation and research. I have somehow never managed to read it before now, and I’m finding Grafton’s overt connection between what we are “doing” in history and how we document that work, to be extremely useful. As I think about what I need to do to prove to my reading audience that I know what I’m talking about, I have forgotten what a thin tissue evidence rests on—our assumptions regarding footnotes. The Footnote also contributes to the discussions we’ve been having on this site about conversations between generations of historians.

Grafton reminds us that “in documenting the thought and research that underpin the narrative above them, footnotes prove that it is a historically contingent product, dependent on the forms of research, opportunities, and states of particular questions that existed when the historian went to work” (23). The genealogies of scholarship so neatly mapped out by Dan Allosso last week can also be seen in the footnotes and bibliographies of individual works of scholarship. Who we think it important to cite, what range of sources were important (or available) at the time, and the family of historiographical ancestors we choose for ourselves all reveal our location in time and situate us on an ideological map.

Footnotes reveal our technical proficiency, but they do so within a particular context. While in grad school, I can remember discounting entire volumes of historical research because the footnotes were so “thin.” And one of my advisors at the University of Chicago would warn us to look with grave suspicion on any early modernist who cited too many printed sources. I’m less puritanical in my standards now. And Grafton has reminded me that: “No accumulation of footnotes can prove that every statement in the text rests on an unassailable mountain of attested facts. Footnotes exist, rather, to perform two other functions. First, they persuade: they convince the reader that the historian has done an acceptable amount of work . . . . Second, they indicate the chief sources that the historian has actually used” (22).

We sometimes still operate under the assumption that if we have all the “original sources” our argument will be solid. But what makes history interesting is all the various interpretations that we can develop from the same sources. It is part of why we revisit the same problems over and over again. Interpretation as well as sources give each of us our originality. This is decidedly not the same thing as saying that any interpretation of the documents is as good as another, but it is what keeps me from reading a scholarly tome and thinking that because the footnotes took up 37% of each page I read, no one need any longer do research on that subject. Grafton also reminded me to be careful in judging the scholarship of an earlier generation by the type or quantity of footnotes.

As I sweat through proper citation of digital works and decide how much to include or exclude from my own footnotes, I am glad to remember that this process isn’t simply about showing off my guild credentials. It’s also a way to “out” myself regarding my priorities and methods. The evidence I use won’t be considered equally sufficient for all time; but then again, I don’t expect to answer historical questions and decide their significance once and for all.

The footnote reminds me of the time-laden nature of my queries and verifications.