I have considered the function of the footnote and the opportunities afforded by digital technology since entering graduate school. Recently, a brief exchange on Twitter with @Jason_M_Kelly and @lostinhistory prompted me to commit some ideas to “paper.” This is just a beginning, as I am sure there will be much more to add.
The footnote has evolved since the days of Edward Gibbon, when it achieved the status of high art. Today, it is certainly treated with less deference, although many authors are skilled at adding tremendous depth to their work with the footnote. Its most primary role is to cite source material. Linking the wider community to sources provides not only accountability but also information that leads to an exchange of ideas. Footnotes provide space for a counter-narrative. This may be less understood outside of the academy, but authors will typically use the footnote to address arguments that fall outside of their thesis. In this manner the footnote advances debate and illustrates historiography. Finally, at least for our purposes today, the footnote acts as a social network. Before the days of inexpensive global travel and international conferences in desirable destinations like Tallahassee, Florida, footnotes provided a way to answer the concerns of colleagues. This is a critical, albeit logistically outdated, function. New technologies provide an incredible opportunity to rethink the way we approach scholarship.
Coming from an Information Technology and business consulting background, I view the progress of global networks, cheap storage, cloud computing, hardware, and bandwidth as adequate precursors for rethinking the footnote. A new paradigm can maintain academic rigor while advancing the dissemination of information throughout the community. All of this can take place in an open source environment, flattening the current publication and distribution hierarchy by placing new toolsets and communication channels in the hands of content creators.
Let us take a glimpse at how the three roles of the traditional footnote might change.
Since citation is so important, new ways of identifying source material should be envisioned. While the URL is a beginning, and electronic analogues of paper documents (like the PDF file) include them, current technology makes it possible to embed source material into the note. If my thesis rests upon the interpretation of an eighteenth-century document, then presenting a digital rendering of the actual document is far superior than referencing its archive location or published transcript. Original text, three-dimensional renderings of material culture, comparisons of multiple editions, and audio/video/still photography can all be reproduced with higher quality and less expense in a digital format than on paper. This means that archives and libraries are going to have to step up their game at digitizing sources, and new forms of licensing like Creative Commons will have to be codified. However, none of this will happen if the academy does not take a firm position and champion the effort.
Although technology is a laggard in my field of History, there are initiatives to create online communities. H-Net is a good social media platform, but it is still a listserv, which is 1990s technology. The digital footnote is begging to be a platform for scholars to engage each other in an ongoing, dynamic conversation. Why should the notes from a first edition remain static? If scholarly conversation occurs after publication, as it most surely will, there is no technological impediment to reflecting that dialog in the notes. The inclusion of book reviews, antitheses, or new research provides a more robust intellectual environment to engage the audience and continue the important function of illustrating historiography.
Imagine the value of a work like The Federalist, annotated throughout the life of our nation by scholars who applied their worldview and theoretical framework, sitting on your tablet device as a data-driven archive.
I am not suggesting a mere comment thread, although that could be a separate environment in which an author moderates an ongoing conversation with students and the public. Such a casual space allows the book to become its own social history. Even if this is not desirable, the important thing to remember is that it is possible. Authors can tailor their work to extend as far beyond their academic field as they wish (for survey classes or a non-academic audience.)
The footnote’s role in providing a counter-narrative also has great potential in the digital age, providing the ability for an author to draw an entire state-of-the-field into a single location. The presentation of such a dialog is no more limited than what we have already explored, and I am quite certain that others will exceed my imaginings.
To return to Jason’s point, the eBook needs to become more than an analogue of the printed book, and the footnote must also evolve. I see a web of scholarship connected through the footnote, controlled through an app and refreshed from the Cloud. The “book” itself is merely an entry point into a larger corpus of knowledge. A colleague told me that “footnotes are magical. There is nothing not to love about footnotes.” It is time to liberate the footnote from the bottom of the page and place it in a space that incorporates the historical event as well as the ongoing conversation about history.
I may stand in need of some apology for having used, without scruple, the authority of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, in all that relates to the wars and negotiations of the Chersonites. I am aware that he was a Greek of the tenth century, and that his accounts of ancient history are frequently confused and fabulous. But on this occasion his narrative is, for the most part, consistent and probable; nor is there much difficulty in conceiving that an emperor might have access to some secret archives which had escaped the diligence of meaner historians.
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
 My comment does not consider the tremendous amount of work done in the digital humanities, which I don’t consider germane to this conversation. In this context I am only referring to social networking. No hate mail, please!