Making (Foot)Notes

As I began work on the analysis of the Scholarly Narratives deposited in the Project Bamboo planning wiki, I found I needed the occasional footnote to explain a few items that didn’t really deserve space in the text proper but still deserved to be addressed in some fashion. Such extra-textural information can customarily be contained in notes of some kind, either foot or end.

Fortunately, the variation of [Markdown][md] that I am using, [MultiMarkdown][mmd] by Fletcher Penney, contains note functionality.

All I have to do to embed a note into the text is to add `[^1]` in the body of the text and then at the end of the text add a mate `[^1]:` Followed by the body of the note. Simple, n’est-ce pas? The HTML it creates looks like this:

1

And later:


  1. [footnote text here]
     ↩

Note how the MultiMarkdown script generously creates a link to return you to the spot where you were reading in the text proper. Thank you, Mr. Penney.

But all of this, it turns out, opens up a larger can of worms that has been poked at by a number of individuals with sticks that reveals that there really is no terribly good solution to the problem of notes in HTML — this despite the fact that one would think that the very links that saturate HTML texts would do the job.

Well, they do, but not quite in the same way that footnotes do the job. One of the great advantages of footnotes, one that they have over endnotes to my mind and why I have always preferred footnotes, is that the reader doesn’t really leave the space, the cognitive space if you will, within which they are operating. If a number or symbol indicating a note is available is paired with an item that piques the reader’s curiosity, all she has to do is flick her eyes to the bottom of the page. Thanks to a pretty decent spatial memory built into the human brain and to the fact that the note you’ve just read had a particular symbol paired with it, returning to the approximate spot in the text from whence the reader came is usually not so difficult a task that it breaks the reader’s sense of flow. (I do not find that endnotes accomplish this at all, by the way, and I’m sorry that my own discipline has chosen endnotes over footnotes.)

But a web page is not a page except in name. The comparable physical space is really a screen.

The compromise has been for the most part to treat the web page as a page and to place notes at its distant, and sometimes unknown (from the reader’s point of view) bottom. The convention that the Markdown script follows, in giving a link back to where you were in the text, is also a common one. The idea is to achieve via technology what the reader used to do themselves physically. I don’t find the effect to be as smooth and it is likely, at least for this reader, at least half the time to result in me losing track of where I was.

There is a really terrific description of all this by [Paula Petrik][pp] in a post where she also gives some really concrete and practical advice on how to construct notes according to one’s own preferences.

[md]: http://daringfireball.net/projects/markdown/
[mmd]: http://fletcherpenney.net/multimarkdown/
[pp]: http://www.archiva.net/footnote/

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