In the age of the Internet, do we really need footnotes to reference quotations we have made in the text? For a book to be taken seriously, does it have to take us right to the yellowing page of some crumbling edition guarded in the depths of an austere library, if the material could equally well be found through a Google search? Has an element of fetishism perhaps crept into what was once a necessary academic practice?
I have just spent three days preparing the text references for a work of literary criticism for Oxford University Press. There were about two hundred quotations spread over 180 pages, the sources being a mix of well-known nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels, very much in the canon, some less celebrated novels, a smattering of critical texts, and a few recent works of psychology. Long-established practice demands that for each book I provide the author’s name, or the editor’s name in the case of a collection of letters or essays, the translator’s name where appropriate, the publisher, the city of publication, the date of publication, and the page number. All kinds of other hassles can creep in, when a book has more than one volume for example, or when quoting from an essay within a collection of essays, perhaps with more than one editor, more than one translator, more than one author. Since the publisher had asked me to apply the ideas I develop in the book to at least one of my own novels there are even three quotations to be referenced from Cara Massimina, a noir I wrote way back in the 1980s.
As it turns out I don’t have a copy of Cara Massimina in the flat I am presently living in, so while writing my critical book I bought a copy on Kindle to find the quotations I needed, using the electronic search facility to pick up key words in half-remembered sentences. Easy. But now that I’m preparing the footnote, where am I going to get the info on the edition, which notoriously Kindle doesn’t give? From the Internet of course. My publisher’s website, or Amazon, or any number of other sources. So there’s no need to get hold of the book itself, the paper version that is. Good.
Ah, but what about the page number? The Kindle edition doesn’t give page numbers, though some e-books now do and some newer Kindle devices apparently have a way to reveal them. For a moment this seems an insuperable problem. Would I have to order a paper copy of my own book? No. I typed the first of my quotations out in Google Books and in a twinkling there it was. With the page number! My reference was complete: Tim Parks, Cara Massimina (London, Vintage, 1995), p. 11.
Excellent. So now any reader who wishes to see if I am quoting correctly from my own book can buy or borrow a copy of Cara Massimina—assuming, of course, they get hold of the same edition I cite, in this case the Vintage paperback published several years after the original—go to page 11, scan the page, and check the words. Or they can stick it in Google and get there in two seconds.
This is the point. And this is what made these three days’ labor so galling.
Footnotes of course come in all shapes and sizes. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was an admirable push to use properly referenced citations to allow greater precision, in particular in relation to historical texts. Sources would be meticulously listed; where there were pirated and often corrupted editions of older texts, the most authoritative version would be identified. In The Footnote: A Curious History (1999), Anthony Grafton traces this aspiration back to Pierre Bayle’s 1697 Dictionnaire Critique et Historique. By referring to an authority the author could both invite a skeptical approach on the reader’s part— I don’t want you to accept anything I say on trust—while simultaneously suggesting that possible objections had already been met by reference to a previous text. Anyone reading academic texts, however, will know how wearisome this strategy has become in recent scholarship. Too often, writers will use it to mention as many other texts as possible, covering their backs even where cover is hardly necessary (an academic journal recently forbade me from using the term “postmodern” without a supporting reference to a definition of the concept); or alternatively, with the hope that with so many references and notes no one will actually check that the texts referred to do not cover their backs at all. Chuck Zerby’s The Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes offers curious examples of what you can find if you do go and check up the texts referred to.
Never mind. It is not to the “appeal to authority” footnote that I am talking about, but the exhausting overkill of information when nailing down a citation. Do readers need to know that Yale University Press is based in New Haven and Knopf in New York? How does this add to their ability to track down a quotation? Once one has the title and the surname of the author, do we really need the author’s initials or first name (Oxford University Press wants the full first name, which can sometimes be very difficult to find when the author him or herself prefers to use initials)? But the real question is, are we never going to acknowledge that modern technology has changed things?
Almost twenty years ago I wrote a much longer, more elaborate academic book, Translating Style. On that occasion the job of adding the citations took a whole week and was extremely laborious. But I do not recall feeling irritated about the effort at all. It was obviously necessary. There was no way readers could access a literary quotation and check the work I had done if I didn’t provide them with adequate references. They needed to know the edition and the page number because there might be different page numbers in different editions. However with this new book I was acutely aware that one reason I was preparing the references more swiftly than in the past was precisely because rather than going to my shelves to pull out the various books I was using Google. So any reader could do this too, and my careful notes were completely unnecessary.
Of course there are objections. For many texts Google Books has stopped giving page numbers. For example, in one chapter I had included quotations from Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens—which I had read on Kindle. The fact is, when you are reading a novel in view of an eventual essay, an e-book has the advantage of being rapidly searchable, while any notes I make on my portable Kindle are immediately synchronized with the app on my computer and easier to browse while writing than notes scribbled on paper. The snag being, again, the absence of page numbers.
Needless to say Google Books had Tomalin’s book and when I typed in the quotations I wanted they came right up, but without the page numbers. This occurred with three or four other recent publications. Presumably in alliance with the publishers, in order to force those of us who need to prepare footnotes to buy paper editions, Google has stopped giving page numbers. Of course, since the reader could always check the quotation on Google without knowing the page number, you might ask why publishers still insist we put the numbers in? And in fact I am asking that. Obviously they are necessary with paper. It can take forever to find a quotation if you don’t know the page number. But where there are electronic texts online, particularly in reliable online libraries like The Gutenberg Project, I’m not sure we need page numbers.
I decided to ask my contacts at the Oxford Press about this and did get one concession. Where a novel was famous and the final text not a matter of dispute, we would just give author, book title, and chapter number. This eliminates the need to mention editions and page numbers. It has to be said, though, that some chapters of Dickens are very long, while it’s a matter of dispute whether Ulysses has chapters at all. Never mind, the method worked wonderfully well with Hardy and Lawrence. There is no need for the same notation to be used with all books.
Of course it will be objected that Google is not always accurate and does not yet include everything. Who would disagree? Though my experience with literary texts is that Google Books, or again Project Gutenberg, or the online University of Adelaide Library are accurate in an overwhelming majority of cases. But if they are not, let’s insist they become more accurate and more comprehensive, particularly with all works that are now out of copyright.
Simply, it’s time to admit that the Internet has changed the way we do scholarship and will go on changing it. There is so much inertia in the academic world, so much affection for fussy old ways. People love getting all the brackets and commas and abbreviations just so. Perhaps it gives them a feeling of accomplishment. Professors torment students over the tiniest details of bibliographical information, when anyone wishing to check can simply put the author name and title in any Internet search engine. A doctoral student hands in a brilliant essay and the professor complains that the translator’s name has not been mentioned in a quotation from a recent French novel, though of course since the book is recent there is only one translation of the novel and in any event anyone checking the cited edition will find the translator’s name in the book.
There is, in short, an absolutely false, energy-consuming, nit-picking attachment to an outdated procedure that now has much more to do with the sad psychology of academe than with the need to guarantee that the research is serious. By all means, on those occasions where a book exists only in paper and where no details about it are available online, then let us use the traditional footnote. Otherwise, why not wipe the slate clean, start again, and find the simplest possible protocol for ensuring that a reader can check a quotation. Doing so we would probably free up three or four days a year in every academic’s life. A little more time to glean quotes from Barthes, Borges, and Derrida…