The Evil Of Endnotes In Academic Books

Calvin's Company of PastorsI 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 footnote). They were endnotes. All the evidence, to which the author refers 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.

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  1. Well, there I was, all in a dither, deeply concerned whether we’re going to bomb Syria, which might lead to a regional conflict, or even worse. Will we go to war against Russia? Is World War III right around the corner? Then a worse problem comes out of nowhere – endnotes vs. footnotes. Thanks a lot, Professor.

    (You know we love ya, Dr. Clark!)

    • Having experience in formatting for print, I can think of three reasons for endnotes – 1. the publisher prefers them; 2. the author requested them; 3. someone is lazy.

  2. It’s not all that hard to keep a bookmark at the page for the current endnotes, and just flash back to peek at endnotes while keeping a finger on the reading page.

    • No, it’s a pain to go from the page you’re at, to the TOC, to the endnotes, and THEN back to the original page. Or could be allowed to look at the bottom of the page.

  3. Permit me to suggest a highly original, mid-tech solution for the intolerable burden of endnotes:

    (1) A bookmark (per RubeRad) or, for quick maneuvers, a 3 x 5 note card. For a really big book, you may want to experiment with a 4 X 6 card, trimming as needed. Ah, the joy of discovery!

    (2) Read and absorb all the endnotes of a section or chapter before you read the text. (Real scholars will be able to memorize the endnotes.)

    (3) If you must consult the endnotes while reading the text, practice the little flippy-thing with your right thumb. Hold down the left page of the text firmly with your left thumb, feel the endnote page-gap created by the note card (this may take some practice), place your right thumb on the right page of the endnote, steady your center of gravity for proper balance, and FLIP! The leftward return-flip is easy once you’ve mastered the basic technique. As an extra bonus, you’ll amaze your colleagues, students, and friends with your hand-eye coordination.

    I’m currently reading Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Having reached the age of spotty memory, I’ve also perfected the front-flip for page-by-page reference to the list of chief families and their members. I’ve tried various mnemonic schemes, but so far have been stumped by the Bezukhovs, the Kuragins, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, and the Drubetskoys.

  4. I would have thought conservatives would favor endnotes as belonging to a great tradition of book making. The notes at the bottom of the page are innovation and novelty. (Now I am not speaking of neanthernal convservatives like Frank Aderholdt. He was born old.)

  5. Ouch, I resemble that. Don’t you just hate it when someone who actually knows you speaks the truth? I was fighting cranky-old-man syndrome (worse than curmudgeon) around age twenty-six.

  6. Have to strongly agree with this, hate endnotes. If you can’t glance down while reading the text to see where the author is drawing from, the book is pretty worthless. However, the modern (last 100 years?) invention of notes of any sort in a book tend to make one lazy intellectually. Much more accurate to go to the original sources and see the context (that can be very hard, of course).

  7. I absolutely despise endnotes. Too many times I have engaged in that wretched 3 step process! Oddly enough, (on a purely anecdotal-off-the-top-of-my-head comment) I’ve noticed that “big name” publishers like Harvard Univ. Press and Yale Press seem to prefer endnotes. (Think of, e.g., of Yale books like Marsden’s biography of Edwards, Benedict’s “Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed,” or Harvard’s publication of Eric Nelson’s “The Hebrew Republic,” etc.)

    As someone in the final stages of authorial revisions on a book with T&T Clark (my dissertation on 16th and 17th century Reformed political readings of the David story), I’ve noticed that their author guidelines allow for an author to choose either footnotes or endnotes. For the life of me I can’t understand why anyone would choose endnotes. (Maybe for a cleaner, aesthetic look?) Needless to say, I’m going with footnotes.

  8. Heh, even all the history undergrads I know hate endnotes. Routledge (academic publisher) had a rep come to one of our classes to get feedback on a we were using textbook. The one suggestion that received universal acclaim from the classroom was that they use footnotes instead of endnotes. Apparently the main reason for endnotes is that it’s easier for the publisher.

    As for the suggestion that there are simple flippy-flappy solutions to the endnotes woes, I have a proposed exercise for those who think it’s so easy. Try reading (critically) ~800-1000 pages of academic works per week where approximately 1/4 of the books’ thickness comes from pages of endnotes. Keep it up for 14 weeks straight. Let us know what you really think of endnotes. We’ll listen sympathetically.

  9. Views do differ in the endnotes/footnotes debate, but one reason for the increasing popularity of endnotes as far as publishers are concerned is the ease of conversion to eBook formats. As far as print is concerned there are no technical difficulties to footnotes: the major page layout program’s are equipped to handle them perfectly well.

  10. Darren,

    Remember that some discussions at Heidelblog are thoroughly serious, and rightly so. Others tend to spawn lots of tongue-in-cheek comments, for a little fun. That’s what I love about this place.

    • Wait, you didn’t think that my comment was fun? Oh, right, I guess the 1000 pages of academic reading a week takes the fun right out of everything.

  11. There’s a way to combine the evil of using endnotes and the Syrian issue. Obama to Congress for permission to Bomb the endnote production.

  12. Excellent post. Endnotes are the bane of my life, but they are becoming more and more common in academic books published by university presses. To me at least, it looks as if the author is cheating by hiding his references at the back of the book so that it is harder to subject the evidence to scrutiny. I can understand why Penguin or other publishers of survey histories might want to use endnotes, but not publishers of academic monographs

    • Footnotes are the low tech version of link surfing, and their disappearance from literature (whether academic or popular) removes context and texture, and diminishes the pleasure of reading. It is a regressive practice in that it makes verification more difficult, not less, and given the ease of building footnotes with modern technology, there is really no excuse for hiding information in hard to track endnotes. Of course, footnotes invite scrutiny and judgment, and if one’s assertions can’t stand the light of day, they are an eminently suitable tool for obfuscation and weaseling.

  13. Dr. Clark for the WIN! Put endnotes in “popular” works, but footnotes in anything even semi-scholarly!

    Good news on this topic in e-books… the recently announced updated Amazon Kindle Paperwhite will allow reading of footnotes/endnotes to “pop up” on top of the page you’re reading. I wonder if they’ll also fan out an update to current Kindle Paperwhites in the near future (as they’ve often done in the past)….

  14. Give it up, Frank. Clark is right. Publishers know that a large majority of academics prefer footnotes over endnotes in academic books for the reasons Clark states.

  15. Also, publishers used to say endnotes were cheaper due to typesetting. If endnotes must be used, they should only be placed as back material. They are easier to find there than at the end of chapters. Though I prefer footnotes, I don’t like them if the author has lots of lengthy prose notes. CMS discourages that and says (I think PW does too) it is poor writing, even for scholarly books. Also, endnote pages should include page references in marginal headings so the reader doesn’t have to constantly refer to TOC as Clark mentions.

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