Friday, February 13, 2004

Blogwatch: Footnotes and Sidenotes

Stephen Carlson and Rubén Gómez have been exchanging some interesting thoughts about the technology of producing academic articles on the web, and specifically on how to represent footnotes, developing out of Stephen Carlson's piece on In-line Glossary technique. As an element in the discussion, Stephen usefully provides two alternative versions of his article on "Clement of Alexandria on the 'Order' of the Gospels", one with hyperlinked endnotes and one with hyperlinked sidenotes. I agree with Rubén in preferring the sidenotes version -- it helps with the problem that the standard monitors are too wide for representing continuous text -- the reader simply does not find it helpful to read across the long lines that were typical of the early days of the web. But even in his endnotes version, Stephen has not fixed the width of the text, so one can reduce the window size in order to read at the most appropriate width, something I always like to do where possible. Sadly, more and more sites fix the width of the text so that it cannot be manipulated. That's a side issue (!), though, and this is just to say that I would like to see more sidenoted articles in the future.

Five further comments:

(1) If hyperlinked sidenotes are to become more common, the problems with printing out such a version will tend to make it necessary to produce alternative printer-friendly versions. This of course already happens in other contexts a good deal.

(2) The Biblical Archaeology Society used sidenotes to good effect in some of their on-line articles, though not hyperlinked if I remember correctly. Alas, most of these have now been removed (as previously commented) and those that remain don't appear to be using the side-noting system.

(3) The rise of PDF as a quick, convenient way of representing articles on-line may well be slowing killing off the art of producing good on-line articles or reproductions of articles using hyperlinked endnoting. Since hyperlinks can be incorporated into PDFs, it is possible that we will see PDFs with hyperlinked footnotes but I doubt it.

(4) Another option that appears to be getting less popular is the one used by the on-line Biblica which uses frames for endnotes so that one can preview on the screen the notes that also appear at the end of the article. I think that this is a neat solution, not leasts because it means one does not need to jump around in the document -- text and endnote can appear simultaneously -- but the decreasing popularity of frames make it unlikely to have a resurgence.

(5) One thing I would like to see with the hyperlinked endote technique is something that is rarely provided -- a [Back] hyperlink in the footnote that takes you back to the right point of the text. Too often, it is assumed that the individual simply uses the "back" button on the browser. I like to provide little arrow buttons to take the reader back to the text (see here for example); this is something I picked up from Mahlon Smith (e.g. here). Stephen Carlson uses another useful technique -- you can click on the endnote number and get back to the right point in the text. The only difficulty with that is that the reader might not know to do that.

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