Sunday, May 21, 2006

Footnote vs. Endnotes

I don't like endnotes in books. I much prefer footnotes.

Why? Because whenever I read a non-fiction book -- doesn't matter what the subject -- I constantly want to check the notes to see what the author is citing. It's orders of magnitude easier to run your eyes down to the bottom of the page than it is to check endnotes.

That said, I realize that some publishers seem to believe (why, I don't know) that the presence of footnotes is intimidating to some readers, or that it is technically easier to paginate the book if the endnotes are in a separate location.

So I've resigned myself to the fact that most non-fiction books have endnotes. That said, there are many different styles of endnotes, and some are so inconvenient that I wonder why the publisher included them at all.

At the worst end of the scale, one book that I read recently had endnotes that took the following form: They were not numbered. Nor were there numbers in the text. Nor were the endnotes labeled by the page in the text. Instead, the sole means of categorizing the endnotes was by chapter number (not title). Then, each endnote began with a short description of the textual information that it was meant to support.

For example, the author would have written a bit of text about City X's employment rate in the 1970s. From reading the text, you'd have no idea whether there was an endnote for this proposition or not. If you wanted to check, you had to do the following: 1. Flip backwards to find what chapter you were reading. 2. Flip to the endnotes to find the notes for Chapter 1 (or 2, etc.). 3. Read through the endnotes for Chapter 1 until you found something that began, "City X's employment rates: _____." 4. Stop reading the endnotes when you got to material that looked unfamiliar (indicating that there was no endnote for this particular proposition). 5. If you did find an endnote, the author might have cited a short form (i.e., "Jones"). 6. Now, if you want to know what "Jones" is, you have to read back over the endnotes in reverse order until you find a Jones (there not being a bibliography).

It was a dreadfully inconvenient setup. It combined every conceivable flaw -- lack of endnote numbers, lack of full citation forms or bibliography, lack of page numbers, lack of chapter headings, and even lack of any indication in the text where there is an endnote.

At the other end of the spectrum, endnotes are most useful when they have the following features:

1. Endnote numbers (this should go without saying; I despise the endnotes that start out with substantive descriptions, which make it difficult for the reader to figure out what goes with what).

2. At the top of each page in the endnotes section, you find the heading, "Notes for pages 67-74," or something like that. Otherwise, you might turn back to the endnotes, only to have to flip back to the text to figure out which chapter you were reading. It's difficult to keep your place while you're doing all of this.

3. If any endnote contains a short form of a cite, then add a bibliography to the book. Otherwise, readers who want to know a full cite will have to waste unbelievable amounts of time trying to figure out where the full cite first appeared.

4. It is MUCH better if the endnotes contain the full citations, by the way. I've seen books with endnotes and a bibliography, and the endnotes invariably end up all being in short form, which means that you have to flip to TWO separate locations to find the reference for a bit of text. Again, it can be hard to keep your place while you're doing this.


Blogger anomdebus said...

This is one area where I think e-books could excel in. On demand notes and biblio information.
I think we are only now coming up on being technically able to match electronically what the average book does. Electronic paper is a big step and is currently under development. Combine that with sensor that would allow you to highlight passages and add notes; I think you would satisfy most users.
Now, I think there is a place for books even if an e-book does everything I could possibly want. But, I think it should be for extraordinary books that are more like collector's items. Most other information does not really warrant paper IMO (i.e. news, most fiction, instructional books).

12:50 PM  
Blogger miriam said...

Lots of publishers don't include any notes whatever. As a librarian, this bugs me. Also as a reader. I like to know the provenance of "facts."

It does help, when a book has endnotes which are properly marked, to use two bookmarks, one at the place in the text and one in the notes.

9:12 AM  

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