On Reading Footnotes

I am an avid consumer of footnotes. As a wee thing, I distinctly remember devouring my mother’s paperback copy of Lady Antonia Fraser’s Mary, Queen of Scots and tearing the pages in flipping them back and forth to savor the footnotes and endnotes.

(In my defense, those pages were awfully thin. My mom also got mad at me for getting orange juice stains on the pages due to reading photo (7)at the breakfast table, but that’s another story.)

But if I was tiresome about footnotes as a child, I am absolutely insufferable about them now. Genealogy has made me a footnote connoisseur — scratch that,  an obsessive. An addict. It’s almost not healthy, the way I can ditch a well-crafted historical narrative in favor of a juicily detailed footnote. (For instance, Mary Beth Norton’s In The Devil’s Snare has Gorgeous.  Footnotes. It’s a groundbreaking study of the Salem witch trials, too, but whatever.)

My interest in genealogy has set me a certain standard for footnoting, and that’s generally a good thing. If you’re stuck in front of an ancestral brick wall, throw a book at it, is what I say. A well-researched, well-cited history set in your ancestor’s place of residence might well lead you to a key source you hadn’t thought of.

However, one bummer about my footnote fetish is how quickly it can ruin a book for me. For instance, I just bought an ebook-format biography — a recent, well-reviewed book about a personality I’d always found intriguing, and I was pretty excited to read it. But I quickly found myself getting frustrated at the frequency with which the author got hazy on biographical details that I thought would be fairly easy to clarify with decent genealogical research. Or if they couldn’t be clarified, I’d hope to see the attempt to do so.

My irritation bubbled over at a footnote that cited 1880 and 1900 census reports for a family group and went on to say: “Those for 1870 and 1890 either don’t remain or were never taken [for the town in question].”

Two things:

A. If you’re seriously researching a family and using census records, you should know there is no either/or about why there are no 1890 census returns. Even if you’re not a genealogist.

B. Of course there were 1870 census returns for the town in question, and I found the family there in about three minutes on Ancestry. (You knew I was going to do that, right?)

Now, maybe Point A was simply a case of fuzzy phrasing, but this sort of thing really wrecks a book’s street cred for me. I’m not citing the particular work or author because (1) I haven’t finished the book yet and (2) I haven’t the heart to single out one person in particular for something I see all the time.

But I do giggle a bit sometimes in contemplating the supposed gulf between historians and genealogists. Because the best ones on both sides of the aisle know the true value of what each side is doing, and use it to their advantage. And ours.

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