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November 30, 2010

Bibliography or Footnotes?

Marian Pierre-Louis wrote an interesting blog post Bibliographies are So Not Boring on her Roots and Rambles blog. I confess it made me think about Bibliographies in an entirely new way.

For I am a Footnote geek. Yes, I love footnotes. I'm guessing that I'm in the 3% of the population who actually reads them! I skim Bibliographies and often skip them entirely.

But which is best - Footnotes or Bibliographies?

For the purpose of comparing Footnotes to Bibliographies, let's look at the definitions provided at the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Bibliography: the works or a list of the works referred to in a text or consulted by the author in its production

Footnote: a note of reference, explanation, or comment usually placed below the text on a printed page

When writing a scholarly article or book, authors often use footnotes which contain exact citations of the sources used for each specific statement.

The genealogy articles that I've had published in the New York Biographical and Genealogical Record are footnoted. That is what the NYGBR insists on. Each footnote must follow an exact standard method of writing footnotes and it is very exacting.

My genealogy-history books are always footnoted. Occassionaly I provide a bibliography but it never replaces footnotes. So I'm a bit of a footnote snob! The first thing I look for in a scholarly book is footnotes. Preferably several on each page.

Numbered footnotes can either be placed at the end of each page, or inserted without a number in the body of the text. I prefer at the end as I find it distracting and often confusing to keep reading an interjected footnote. For me it's like having someone interrupting a conversation I'm enjoying. I'd rather read the footnotes when I finish the page or the sentence or the paragraph. That way the writing is more cohesive.

I confess to having skipped over Bibliographies in the past. But Marian's article has me thinking and I can see the value in adding a Bibliography to my future books and articles. It seems to me that the footnote does it's thing by citing the source used for that specific piece of evidence or statement made by the author. And that's what I want to see!

But I now realize that the footnote is only part of the final product. As an author, I consult many reference books in my research. I probably did not cite them in my footnotes as they were more of a generic research and not related to any specific fact. For example I always research the history of the location or time period which I am writing about. If I don't create a Bibliography, the reader will never know what books or articles I found and consulted which may be of great interest to him or her.

My conclusion is that as an author I need to use both footnotes and Bibliographies in order to present as complete and scholarly a book or article as possible. One without the other is like apple pie without ice cream.....


JK said...

When I write up my family history reports I mainly use footnotes but do cite sources when needed. I don't normally create bibliographies because if I send a family history report to a relative they can always ask where I got a date or place and that's usually a vital record. I then tell them where I got it if they are interested so that they can see it for themselves. However, I may try doing a bibliography, but like footnotes as they are easier.

Marian said...

Exactly! You hit the nail on the head. I love footnotes too but I tend to write blog posts about one thing specifically. Footnotes are are micro analysis (which I love when researching the same specific topic) and bibliographies are macro anaylsis (when you are researching *around* the same topic. And you are spot on when you say that a bibliography often contains many books and resources that are not cited in the foototes. I love both. Maybe I'll write about footnotes next time! Thanks for reading my post and sharing your own thoughts on the topic. That's blogging at its best.

Kathleen Brandt, Professional Genealogist said...

I too love footnotes and I like endnotes (they seem to be extended footnotes, since at the end of the book/chapter and still with great citations. But, I like bibliographies. I copy the pages and carry them with me to the Half Price Book Store (the actual name of a chain here in KC. I love tedious stuff!