Footnotes, Endnotes, Hyperlinks

IN WHICH our proprietor Rambles on the relationships among the items listed in the title.

Humans argue more about minor quibbles than major ones. A relatively minor difference of opinion becomes in the mind's eye an item of such import that everything other than standing up for one's position fades away. Among the literary set, a quibble over the differences between endnotes and footnotes can bring men to harrowing heights of anger.

A Brief Overview

Endnotes have a lot to recommend themselves. They do not distract the eye on the page. I know for myself that if I am reading a page and see a footnote, I am immediately drawn to them. “OOH” my brain thinks, “perhaps this footnote contains some esoteric tidbit of knowledge that parenthetically adds depth and richness to not only the text at hand, but my LIFE!!”1 Having the notes in the back of the book reduces this tendency.2

Footnotes also have much to recommend themselves. They do not require flipping to the flipping back of the flipping book in order to flipping read the citation or note3. It's all right there on the page. That said, having everything right there on the page can be distracting.4

Hypertext gently collapses the utility of footnotes and endnotes to great effect. Take, for example, this page. The notes on this node are both endnotes and footnotes. Like endnotes, they come at the end of the piece. Like footnotes, they come at the bottom of the page. Unlike footnotes and endnotes, they are hyperlinked.

What does this linkage mean for the reader? While the reader still suffers the disadvantages of the endnote, those disadvantages are mitigated by the fact that one can simply click the superscript numeral and be sped to the bottom of the page. The pain of flipping to the back of a book to read endnotes stems from the fact that you have to flip to the back of the book. There is physical action involved. This action takes time. In the time that it takes to flip to the back of the book, one has had ample opportunity to lose track of one's place in the primary text.5 With notes hyperlinked via URL fragments, jumping to an endnote becomes nigh instantaneous. That swiftness mimics the swiftness of reading a footnote that is on the same page. Unlike reading a footnote on the same page, as long as one is not near the tail end of the document one will not be distracted by those intriguing blobs of smaller text that do not necessarily further the original reason for reading.6


The main problem with using linked footnotes is that it eschews the contextual affordances of hyperlinks. If the footnote were linked using a string in the stream of the main text, like most links one finds on the web, the textual content of the string being linked would lend additional meaning to the note. Footnotes replace the context of hyperlinks with just the numerical order that footnote came to find itself in the document hierarchy. The more explicit the hyperlink, the more useful the context provided.

So choosing to move the foot/endnote hyperlinks into the main text and away from superscript numerals would have a small benefit. That benefit would be outweighed by the inability of the reader to tell at a glance whether a hyperlink is going to link outward to a tantalizing resource, or inward to a (hopefully still tantalizing) resource hosted by yourself. The contextual clues provided by the linked superscript numerals declare: “This link leads to an authorial commentary on a portion of the main text. Inline hyperlinks indicate no such thing.

I am going to stick with Hyperverses' current system of endnotes for the time being. They provide the context indicating that the link is leading to an authorial comment about or about a tangent from the primary text, as well as remove the negative affordances of print-based footnotes and endnotes. I suspect it is one of the best compromises one will find in site design for some time.

  1. My brain is usually wrong about this.

  2. Although they do reduce that particular tension, endnotes introduce another. “Ooh, a superscript arabic numeral!” my brain thinks. “This is either going to be a citation or a note. If it's a citation, you won't want to bother. What you're reading is very interesting! But if it's a note, it might make what you're reading even MORE interesting! So which shall it be? The lady, or the tiger?” Often an extra bookmark is required for the back, and on the top of the bookmark I write the next number of endnote that is not a mere citation, so I can see at a glance when I come upon endnote 32 that I do not need to pay endnotes any heed until I reach endnote 37.

  3. As you may have guessed, I tend to prefer footnotes over endnotes when reading the sort of book that has notes and citations.

  4. See footnote 2.

  5. There are two reasons for losing track of one's place. First, there is just more time. While one reads, one puts that data in short-term memory. Not everything read gets added to long-term memory. In the time it takes to flip to the back, short-term memory will invariably find other bits of information that it needs to hold. Second, I often find even jarring context switches more palatable if there is less time in between them. If I know I am in the middle of a context switch, and I have to wait, I find that when I return after the context switch is over I had been distracted to the point of not retaining as complete a mental model of what I had been reading.

  6. Even though intellectually I know that the meat of the book is in the primary text, it is so tempting and flattering to one's vanity to (quite natuarally) assume that the most useful bit of information I will glean from a book is bound to be found in a footnote. The secondary problem with that scenario is that it actually happens; I have lost count of the times where the most important and intriguing bit of knowledge I gleaned from a book I gleaned from a footnote I took the time to read.