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Footnotes in a History Paper

How to Use Footnotes in a History Paper

Feb 01, 2013 - Posted to  Writing in General
Every academic discipline has its own rules for style and formatting. If you're going to be writing a chemistry report, you'll have to worry about writing equations and formatting tables, but if you're working on an English paper you might be more concerned about using block quotes correctly or creating subheadings. History papers are no exception, and students working on coursework for a history class will face a unique set of demands. Among the most important of these style challenges are footnotes, which historians rely on more than scholars in any other field.
Note: All information in this article comes from the 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the most common style guide used for works in history. Other style guides such as MLA or APA will have different rules for when and how to use footnotes.

Footnotes and endnotes

Just what is a footnote? Basically, it's a number inserted into the text that directs the reader's attention to another location in the paper where they can find more information about what they've just read. In history papers footnotes serve as a way to cite sources, and the note is usually a bibliographic entry that details the source material for a quote or idea. However, these notes can also be used to expand on ideas in the text.
If the notes are located at the bottom of each page, they're called footnotes; if they're collected at the end of the paper, they're called endnotes. Generally, in history it's preferred that the writer use footnotes. This format makes it easy for readers since they only need to quickly scan down to the bottom of the page to read the note instead of having to flip back and forth between pages. However, if you have only a few notes or you have so many footnotes that they take up a sizable portion of the page, you may use endnotes. If you're not sure which to use, it's best to ask your teacher or professor which they prefer. In this article I'm going to refer to footnotes only, but all the issues discussed below can be applied to endnotes as well.

What goes in a footnote?

Bibliographic information

By far the most common type of information provided in a footnote will be citations-bibliographic information for a source you are citing in the main text. For history papers, every time you refer to work done by others, it's should be noted in the text with a footnote, and the note should list all the information the reader would need to track down the original source.
What to cite: Deciding what material to cite can be tricky. On one side of the citation spectrum you've got direct quotations-material typed word-for-word from the source text-that should always list the source. On the other side of the spectrum you have your own personal arguments and ideas; obviously these won't have a source to cite. Then you have everything else in between. Often it can be difficult to tell where your research ends and your own ideas begin or whether a fact or idea can be considered common enough to skip the citation. When you're in this gray area, it's a matter of personal discretion, but there are a few guidelines that can help:
  • Direct quotes. Material that is copied word for word from another source should always include a citation. Note that direct quotations should be used sparingly. Unless the writer's language is of interest or you feel they expressed an idea in a way that you can't paraphrase, it's better to summarize the point.
  • Paraphrasing. If you're paraphrasing someone else's ideas-that is, you're not quoting word-for-word but you're restating an original idea that came from another person's work-then you need to use a citation.
  • Controversial ideas. Anything that could be considered controversial should include a reference to the source; if you're taking a side in a debate you need to show you have evidence to back it up.
  • General knowledge. General facts such as dates and names don't require citations. If you can find it in any common textbook or encyclopedia, then you don't need to cite a specific source.
  • Everything else. If you're not sure, it's always better to play it safe and provide a citation. Remember, anything that doesn't have a citation you're taking credit for, and you'll be better off if your paper has too many citations than if it looks like you're intentionally plagiarizing somebody else's work.
Bibliographic footnotes can also include information about the source if it's relevant. For example, you may want to give a brief description of the credibility of the source or note other relevant sources. These are not required, however, and should be used only when necessary to answer potential questions the reader might have that would lead them to question your work.

Other information

Footnotes can also be used to include information that is relevant but not vital to your main argument. For example, if you're discussing a historical figure, you may want to include an anecdote that's interesting but does not directly pertain to the main argument of your paper. This anecdote can be included in the footnotes-basically, it's a place to stash information that's interesting but that would interrupt the flow of your paper. These kinds of footnotes should be used sparingly. You don't want your reader to be constantly having to read through extra paragraphs in the notes, so before you include one of these footnotes think hard about whether it really adds value to your paper.

How to use footnotes

Footnotes should be marked in the text with a superscript number like this.1 The corresponding notes should be numbered at the bottom of the page under a line separating them from the main text.

1 Footnote one.

Footnotes should always be placed at the end of a sentence, never in the middle, and should come after the ending punctuation of the sentence.
Incorrect
Jefferson was unable to complete the requirements of the will due to legal complications,1 but he never commented on the matter directly.
Correct
Jefferson was unable to complete the requirements of the will due to legal complications, but he never commented on the matter directly.1
Incorrect
Adams claimed the affair to be "an injustice of the most heinous sort.2"
Correct
Adams claimed the affair to be "an injustice of the most heinous sort."2
More than one footnote should never be included side-by-side. If you need to reference more than one source, use only one footnotes and include the bibliographic information for all the sources in the same note. In fact, it's often a good idea to include more than one source, particularly when citing controversial work: the more evidence you can provide for your argument, the more credible your paper will be.
Incorrect
Jefferson never publicly acknowledged the paternity of this children with Hemings, and they were only freed after his death.2,3

2 Source 1., 3 Source 2.

Correct
Jefferson never publicly acknowledged the paternity of this children with Hemings, and they were only freed after his death.2

2 Source 1 & Source 2.

If you're going to be citing the same source several times in a single paragraph, it's preferred that you put a single footnote at the end of the paragraph. When you do need to cite the same source more than once, you can use a shortened version of the bibliographic entry. If you're citing the same source in two footnotes in a row, you can use the abbreviation ibid with the page number. A section of footnotes with these references might look like this:
3 Tracy Olleps, "Jefferson and Adams: A Political Friendship," Journal of American History 59, no. 2 (2001), 59.
4 ibid, 37.
5 Alice Brown-Hilt, Master of Monticello: The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Knopf, 2006), 119.
6 Olleps, Jefferson and Adams, 351.

Citation style

Below are examples of how to format common sources when cited in the footnotes.

Book with one author (print)

1 Alice Brown-Hilt, Master of Monticello: The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Knopf, 2006), 119.

Book with more than one author (print)

2 Michael Holmes and Samantha S. White, Jefferson and France (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 263.

Journal article (print)

3 Tracy Olleps, "Jefferson and Adams: A Political Friendship," Journal of American History 59, no. 2 (2001), 59.

Article in a magazine or newspaper (print)

4 Stuart Meijck, "Can Jefferson's Image Be Restored?," New York Times, 12 June 1993, A4.

Book with one author (online)

5 Alice Brown-Hilt, Master of Monticello: The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Knopf, 2006), 119. http://www.universitylibrary.edu/history/2165 (accessed 26 Aug 2011).

Journal article (online)

6 Tracy Olleps, "Jefferson and Adams: A Political Friendship," Journal of American History 59, no. 2 (2001), par. 4, http://www.JAH.org/59-2/Jefferson (accessed 24 Feb 2010).

Website (original content)

7 Juliet Ethelmann, "Who Was Thomas Jefferson?," Society of Jefferson Scholars, http://www.SJS.com/mainsite/Jefferson (accessed 12 Jan 2011).
At the end of your paper you should collect all the sources you cited in a list under the heading "Bibliography." These citations will look slightly different: the authors' first and last names should be reversed, and the page number is left off. For example:
Brown-Hilt, Alice. Master of Monticello: The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Knopf, 2006.
The list should be alphabetized by the author's last name.
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