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Treasures of the Inforum: The Footnote: A Curious History

By Stephanie Abba

I don’t quite remember how I first came across this volume at the Inforum. It’s entirely possible (1) that I was looking for something to walk me through APA style, since that is the required style in some iSchool classes.(2, 3) My academic background is in history and French, so I’m all about the Chicago Manual of Style and not at all about parenthetical documentation. (4) So as I wandered through the aisles of the Inforum, grousing about being forced out of my citation style comfort zone, my eyes lit upon The Footnote: A Curious History by Anthony Grafton.

The book doesn’t make a case for or against the use of the footnote, but instead is a history of the development of footnotes – the “pedants of history”, as the back cover of the book describes them. The author, a history professor at Princeton University, has an eye for a fun turn of phrase, such as in the preface where he writes that “statements about the nature and origins of the footnote […] are particularly likely to occur in polemics about the good old days when historians were men and footnotes were footnotes.” (5)

While the cover copy suggests the book will cover the whole history of footnotes, it does not. At least one reviewer points out that it covers the history of the footnote in about 300 years of Western European historical texts. (6) So, it’s limited. I still recommend it, especially if you’re familiar with Gibbon and some of the other texts Grafton discusses. (But wouldn’t a comparison of citation styles from different cultures over time be fascinating? Does that exist? Someone should write that. (7))

P.S. I stole the idea of using copious footnotes in this review of a book about footnotes from Anne Fadiman, who used footnotes to acknowledge all the things she was borrowing from (or outright stealing) in her essay about plagiarism. (8)

Editor’s note: Regrettably, the version of WordPress that the Iguana runs on does not support footnotes. We’re going to just roll with the irony of a review of a book about footnotes, which itself uses footnotes, not having footnotes supported. Our apologies to Stephanie.

  1. Entirely likely, actually.
  2. This particular class was Research Methods with Prof. Alan Galey.
  3. In other classes, Prof. Galey requires Chicago style, which on at least one occasion he has called “a citation system for a messy world”. Alan Galey, “INF2331: The Future of the Book” (lecture, iSchool/Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, November 28, 2016.)
  4. Chicago style rules, parenthetical documentation drools – at least in the humanities. Fight me.
  5. Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), vii.
  6. Nathan Sivin, “The Footnote: A Curious History (review).” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43, no. 3 (2000): 457-459. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed February 7, 2017).
  7. Be careful when and where you say that. I suggested someone should write a column for the Iguana about ‘Treasures of the Inforum’ and now it’s my gig.
  8. Anne Fadiman, “Nothing New Under the Sun,” in Ex Libris:Confessions of a Common Reader (New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998, 2000). The Inforum doesn’t hold this delightful volume – if they had it would have been the first thing I wrote about – but there are copies at Kelly, Robarts, Laidlaw, E.J. Pratt, and John W Graham libraries. I recommend it wholeheartedly, especially the essay “Marrying Libraries.”
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