On popular vs. academic histories (or: why footnotes/endnotes matter)

I’m working on the history of forensic science, an area with a wealth of popularCover: The Footnote in PAPERBACK historical studies (in addition to academic ones). This has gotten me thinking about debates among academics over popular histories–whether non-fiction trade books or fictionalized versions in the form of historical novels or films. Some scholars are purists and can’t tolerate any degree of artistic license (I’m talking most about the fictionalized versions here). But I can see the value of popular works of history. Popular histories are often the first to capture the general reader’s imagination, allowing the reader to then follow up with the academic research. My own students¬† react well to historical films and novels, and we then dig into the academic works that usually tell a more complicated story. Collaboration between scholarly historians and the creators of popular historical genres also create a valuable bridge between the scholarly and popular genres of historical work. And I’m a big fan of scholarly historians getting their work out to a general audience through opinion pieces in the press, blogposts, and communication with journalists.

All of this said, there is an aspect of trade non-fiction history books specifically that I find troubling. I’m talking about trade books *without footnotes or endnotes.* I recently read a study of forensic science in India by a scholar in this trade format. The book (which shall remain nameless) was wonderfully written and full of fascinating stories and figures from the annals of forensic technologies–truly a pleasure to read. However, it had no footnotes or endnotes. Instead, it had a general essay on sources at the end.

Footnotes or endnotes provide two important functions. First, they let the reader verify what the author is saying by looking up the original source. This original source may lie deep in some remote archive on the other side of the world, but at least the note format makes it humanly possible to check and confirm the basis for the point the author is making. (In the same spirit, I appreciate the American law review convention of including quoted excerpts in parentheses in the footnote, giving the reader easier access to the exact words from the source.)

The second thing that scholarly notes do is to allow the researcher to follow up with the source for their own research purposes. I wanted to read more about many things the author of the forensics book wrote about. In a book published by an academic publisher with notes, I would have been able to. But this book’s rather general essay on sources did not allow the research chain to continue from one scholar to the next. While it was fun to read, it was a dead end for me as a researcher. I had to take the author’s statements on trust. I can quote this book, but I can’t follow its unidentified sources any further for my own research. We historians usually research and write alone. We rarely co-author. And yet our research is collaborative in a different way: we read each others’ work, we disagree or agree, and hopefully we carry the field forward by creating a robust scholarship collectively. Popular histories with no notes block this process.

Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History puts it well: “footnotes matter to historians. They are the humanist’s rough equivalent of the scientist’s report on data: they offer the empirical support for stories told and arguments presented. Without them, historical theses can be admired or resented, but they cannot be verified or disproven.” Footnotes (or endnotes) also allow us to follow and build on each others’ work. So while I am all for making our historical research accessible to as large an audience as possible, I wish we could do it in a way that wouldn’t impede the collaborative scholarly enterprise.