Historical Research Workshop

Week 4 Reading: Grafton,The Footnote

Footnotes are wonderful.

Former President of the American Historical Association, Anthony T. Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History provides a concise history of (you guessed it) the footnote. From tracing the development of the footnote from its origins to the role in the maturation of modern scholarship, Grafton pays tribute to the subscript that is often overlooked and underutilized. Footnotes!


The Footnote


Grafton, Anthony T. The Footnote: A Curious History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Regardless of using them to find new research leads or to determine the credibility and ideological bend of the author (read the chapter to find out what else they can be used for), footnotes allow us a higher level of interaction and evaluation of our texts. This being said, some other things y’all might want to think about are other uses can you find in footnotes? And what can you learn from a closer look of the footnotes in your own books? What are the limitations? In general, what are the contours of the evolution of the footnote?

Good health, good spirits, and good reading,




14 comments for “Week 4 Reading: Grafton,The Footnote

  1. Nathan Myers
    September 20, 2013 at 6:49 PM

    I found this information on the footnote to be rather novel to my understanding. I have not considered the history or historical use of footnotes, neither have seen them as ways an author can spite, or argue with another author. The part about the German historians’ omission of footnotes due to their perspective that they occupied a “middle kingdom” and that they didn’t want to admit to the work of barbarians, was of particular surprise to me. In addition, the use of cf. to indicate a comparison and at the same time infer that the cited work was indeed incorrect seemed rather beyond the cut and dry notion I had previously had of footnotes.

  2. Alexis Munoz
    September 20, 2013 at 6:59 PM

    I’m still a little taken back by the fact that there is an entire book written on footnotes. What I found interesting from the first chapter is that throughout history, if footnotes were not used correctly, a historian’s work could be dismissed completely. I always thought footnotes were apart of a new writing style in history since I just started using them in college.

  3. Chao Yang
    September 20, 2013 at 7:56 PM

    This reading has given me a better understanding of how footnotes have been used by different groups and how it has changed. One thing that I got out of this reading was that by looking up footnotes, I am able to better understand the writers arguments.

  4. Hannah Nichols
    September 20, 2013 at 8:12 PM

    When Grafton described some historical precedents of the footnote, his reference to how Johannes Kepler wrote a book that explained the historical and scientific context of his earlier book was really fascinating. I think modern historical footnote can function in this way, on a smaller scale, leaving a trail for future historians to follow. To be honest, the only footnotes I generally read are those where the author overtly includes their own commentary. Before reading Grafton, I didn’t appreciate the more subtle ways authors communicate through citations and omissions. Even still, that kind of deep dialogue seems more exclusive to the author and his/her peers in the field, though being aware that this type of back-and-forth exists among experts in the field presents a new avenue for investigating research topics.

  5. Korey Haman
    September 23, 2013 at 9:11 PM

    Not only was this reading informative about the uses of footnotes, I found the history of footnotes also interesting. I never thought much about what footnotes do besides let the author sneak in side notes that might be interesting or useless to a close reader. Although they are interesting and can give more general information, the reader points out that it gives the author another source of authority and support. Footnotes tie the history together and give the author a chance to support his claim with solid evidence that might not fit into an organized essay. The reading also made me realize how much footnotes can explain and support an argument.

  6. Olivia Marston
    September 24, 2013 at 12:03 AM

    What I found most compelling about Grafton’s piece was his evidence for the insight that footnotes can afford us into the changing nature of historical analysis, across time and across communities. The national idiosyncrasies tied up in the history of footnotes, and what they tell us about broader trends in national histories was a completely novel concept to me, revealing the multifaceted utility of footnotes. Grafton’s illumination of the limitations of footnotes was also particularly interesting, especially within the context of their changing use. Whilst they may be intended to lend authority and legitimacy to historical arguments in contemporary scholarship, paradoxically they serve as a reminder that ‘historical work and its notes can never reproduce or cite the full range of evidence they rest on’, and therefore emphasizes the ‘limited horizons and opportunities of the author’.

  7. Christina Valli
    September 24, 2013 at 8:55 PM

    I have never given footnotes much thought, and have only used them insofar as citing sources, never expanding on arguments I am making within an essay. But it was actually an interesting read-not expected on such a minute-seeming subject. What I took away from the piece was that footnotes function by providing evidence that a writer has done adequate research, and indicate what sources the writer used for research. Footnotes give a sense of authority to the writer, and a sense of a grasp of the field of study. However, it gets tricky when exploring the sources, because you cannot be sure that a footnote cites really credible facts.

    What was really interesting was looking at how footnotes have been used in different countries. They are almost as varied as the languages of the country, which was unexpected and cool to learn.

  8. Kamyar Jarahzadeh
    September 24, 2013 at 10:03 PM

    I had a nerdy moment once (okay many time) at Berkeley. One of my favorite professors solidified his place in my heart when he said, “the best part of most books are the footnotes.” This is indeed true on an intellectual level, as this reading made clear. In this reading, Grafton interprets the footnote as the sort of death of history as “argument” and birth of a more reflexive and non-authoritative view of history. In terms of academics in general, this degree of self-reflection is invaluable. As he notes, the footnote is seldom taught to students — we are simply expected to figure it out. Maybe we can learn about how to footnote properly in this course?

  9. Cord Brooks
    September 25, 2013 at 12:53 AM

    I hadn’t really given much thought to the footnote before reading this passage. The idea that the footnote bestows authority to the writer was an especially interesting concept. Is there just something about actually seeing a footnote that conjures this sentiment? I confess to having glossed over footnotes, only looking if I believe the matter to be of the utmost importance. Even when reading Grafton, I found myself doing this. As far as the limitation of footnotes, I consider Grafton’s “scholar-pickpocket” to be fairly apt. Many readers will not put in the effort to make sure a footnote is accurate, making it much easier for certain scholars to misuse their sources.

  10. Dakota Bloom
    September 25, 2013 at 8:50 AM

    Reading Response, The Footnote
    I enjoyed the deftness with which Footnote was written. Whether mentioning the “cf.” notation in the text as an efficient attack^1, or how the style of his footnotes change when discussing historical changes in the styles of footnotes^2. Overall an interesting read.^3

    1. And then using it to attack another author.
    2. This is particularly notable during the early section on Gibbon, compared to the later sections discussing footnote fatigue.
    3. Silly WordPress not allowing me to use true footnotes.

  11. Namkyung Lee
    September 25, 2013 at 9:38 AM

    About leaving footnotes, it is one of the things that makes me annoying. I have a bad memory with footnotes : back in Korea I had to write paper as a group project and the thing was the leader of our team kept changed the style of footnotes so and asked me to follow her way and to be more clear and informative. She didn’t even give me the sources she found her materials but just ask me to find the sources by myself saying that she forgot about the sources. And what I thought was that the one who wrote that page is more suitable than anyone else but she asked me to write further explanation about several parts. Although it was a hard work, actually by doing this, I had to search for information which made me to have lots of knowledge about that topic. Also, thinking that my footnotes might have been helpful for someone to catch up with our reading makes me feel proud of myself. General reading was interesting, though. How to use it and the history parts also.

  12. Caitlin O'Neal
    September 25, 2013 at 6:31 PM

    This reading is fun; I’m a huge fan of subtle smack-talking within a historical context. I have a lot of opinions, and it’s hard not to include one or two in my history papers. I generally use an aside, or just sarcastic wording, but saying all the stuff you REALLY want to say on a topic using the footnotes is genius. It has definitely led me to seek out Gibbon’s work for further study.

  13. Rocio Garcia
    September 25, 2013 at 8:54 PM

    This reading was fairly entertaining! I never knew that reading about the history of the footnote could be this interesting! This is the second time I have been exposed to the rules and uses of footnotes only once before, during one of my class sections just last week. I can say that I have a more solid foundation on how to use a footnote and how it can make my paper look and sound more sophisticated!

  14. Jason Troia
    October 28, 2013 at 4:37 PM

    I enjoyed the evolution of the footnote, and all of their different meanings over time, from being used to give legitimacy, to insert satire, all the way to the purpose that we understand today. Who would’ve thought that the subject of the footnote could be so complex and interesting?

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