Literary Usability: Footnotes

Dear Publishing Industry, footnotes are your friend! Do Not Fear Them.

“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations!”

Ok, they may not be for everyone1, but when you enjoy extended commentary, or if you grew up with an Annotated Aliceon the shelf, you start looking for things with footnotes, because you know they’ll quite often be very funny or illuminating, if done correctly.

Indeed, one of the reasons why I purchased Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books2 in print format versus e-book is for the footnotes. They’re apparently expurgated in the electronic versions, which is a shame. Like many before him, Pratchett uses footnotes in a number of ways, including:

  • to elaborate on a character or event without interrupting the narrative
  • to contradict a character’s statement
  • to offer additional historical background, again without interrupting the flow of the narrative
  • to make coffee shoot from your nose at key moments, preferably in public.

In fact, a number of popular works allow footnotes to provide a secondary narrative, or  to provide supportive reference material in a timely fashion.   These include3:

  • The Hitchhiker Trilogy by Douglas Adams
  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  • “Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown” by J.G. Ballard
  • Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

Geek Tag On 

Ok, here’s where I put on my other hat, because, while footnotes are very appealing to me from a narrative standpoint, they’re hell to code in electronic documents.  Trust me, I’ve done it, and I’m about to do it again soon for a new edition of a journal I’m very excited to be working on.  Footnotes and Endnotes?  Not digitally friendly.  Which is strange, because content on the internet is ideal for opening up multiple ways of reading, multiple perspectives, and injections of information from outside.  Which is what footnotes can be, in the right hands.

The technical problem started with the internet (haven’t we heard that before?).  Before that, we were all trained (well, most of us) to follow the breadcrumb trail of numbers to the additional information.  Then came HTML.  HTML wasn’t very footnote friendly.  It required online editors to add extensive superscript and link anchors to documents.  Yuck.  Plus, navigating that sort of thing became a very jerky experience.

CSS driven pop-ups offer many more in-place options, but they often overlay and obscure the very text they’re trying to illuminate.  When HTML5 conventions were in development, some of us had high hopes, but these were dashed when it was discovered that HTML5 convention didn’t add solid footnoting standards either – instead, they have this handy recommendation posted on the W3C website.

It comes as welcome news, then that electronic publications are gaining some options, as A New Kind of Book pointed out in July.  I’m going to link to the reprint at O’Reilly Radar, because the images are all still embedded there, which doesn’t seem to be the case at ANKoB. The UVA method is particularly nice, adding a (+) that reveals inline text instead of footnotes.

Geek Tag Off  (you’re safe now)

So, there is hope, especially for those publications that want to dare to explore different uses of electronic text. For those of us who enjoy reading the subtext, the meta information, and the asides that keep even the most linear story a little slant, here’s hoping that notes, foot or not, will continue to appear in electronic publications, and that the ability to encode them will adapt to new and future layouts.

Nota bene, Publishers: I don’t know what I’d do if someone offered me Pratchett without footnotes. The books wouldn’t be the same at all.



  1. Annotated Alice! I got excited just seeing that. I suspect my childhood experiences with that volume had quite a bit to do with my decision to go to graduate school. ❤ Martin Gardner.

    • Agreed, Phoebe – it’s a fantastic resource.

      I suspect my childhood experiences with that volume have quite a bit to do with the fact that I’m a footnoter now. Well, that and Borges. And Heather McHugh. And, ok, quite a lot of smart people had a lot to do with this… [there should be a footnote here, pointing at all the smart people]

  2. Our Annotated Alice was definitely my father’s (and I have only the vaguest recollection of what the inside looks like– possibly I should borrow that sometime!) but being a Classics major definitely turned me into a footnote junkie. It’s worn off somewhat, but there was definitely a while where I was constitutionally incapable of *not* flipping to the back of the book to look up those little numbers, and then being terribly frustrated when half the time all there was to see was another Ibid page number and no explanation of why (for instance) the king’s concubine would have borne him a lion.

    That inline text option sounds terribly useful. 🙂

    • oh the Ibid trail! That was always frustrating to me as well – in any context, historical, fantastical, classical. But now *I want to know why the king’s concubine bore him a lion* too! Argh!

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