I dislike endnotes generally but I really resent endnotes in academic books. This morning I was reading Scott Manetsch’s excellent volume on life of the church in Calvin’s Geneva. I wanted to read his discussion of Sabbath legislation and enforcement in Geneva. I found it and found it helpful. At the end of two relevant sentences there were superscript numbers. These are signals that one can find more information (usually references to primary source materials) in the notes. In this instance, however, as is too often the case, the notes were not at the bottom of the page (a footnotes). They were endnotes. All the evidence, to which the author is referring his readers, is buried in the back of the book. If the publisher had used footnotes, I would only have to glance at the bottom of the page to find the information I wanted. This time, however, to find what I wanted I went to the endnotes. They were organized by chapter number. So I went back to my starting point but there was no indication of the chapter number so I went to the table of contents. Thence I went back to the endnotes until I found the information I wanted. Only after that three-step process could I begin reading again. This is cumbersome and irritating.
In some cases this wouldn’t be terribly objectionable. There are popular volumes in which one would not necessarily want or need to see footnotes. My complaint, however, is not about the use of endnotes in popular books but about their use in academic books. These volumes that are written for scholars, who read books written by scholars and for scholars precisely for the information that is contained in footnotes. They’re so important in academic writing and publishing that the Chicago Manual of Style spends an entire chapter on them.
A couple of correspondents (via Twitter) defended the practice of using endnotes in lieu of footnotes on the ground that they don’t want to read footnotes. They regard footnotes as a distraction. I reply: fine, don’t read them. In what world is anyone forced to read footnotes? Within the providence of God humans have the ability to choose freely between reading and not reading footnotes. Why should those of us who want to read footnotes be force to frog around in the volume until the notes reveal themselves? If academic publishers use footnotes then readers can choose to read or ignore them. When academic publishers use endnotes, that choice is eliminated.
It was also objected that there are considerable technical challenges to including footnotes. Perhaps but they cannot be so overwhelming as to prevent their use since academic publishers have been using footnotes regularly for about a century. Footnotes have existed for probably a couple of centuries or more but they became more regularly and widely used through the middle of the 20th century. I have not yet typeset a page for a book but I’ve been involved in various aspects of publishing enough to know that the difficulties are not insuperable.
I understand that some readers don’t want to read footnotes but as part of the target demographic for academic books, as a consumer of academic books, as one who pays a considerable number of dollars for increasingly expensive academic books, I object to the rise of endnotes to the exclusion of footnotes in academic books.