Back in 1998 I created my very first site, a summary of my research into the Thidrekssaga, and since it was supposed to be a scientific publication I needed a footnote system. I ended up using a footnote frame, and back then I was pretty impressed by my own creativity. Meanwhile the wow-factor of this solution has decreased rather dramatically.
Seven years later, four articles about footnotes caught my eye within about an hour.
The other three articles are part of one chain. On 14 July Richard Rutter wrote Gruber's footnotes about John Gruber's handling of footnotes. In itself this is a short and not particularly interesting note, but it has a few updates caused by Joe Clark's reply. On 20 July John Gruber himself wrote About the Footnotes, where he explained what he is doing. On 24 July Joe Clark wrote There’s no such thing as a footnote, in which he confessed himself "not impressed" by Gruber's footnotes, and said:
This is an example of heaping praise upon an A-lister for doing something everyday and common under the guise of innovation.
Richard updated his post in response to Joe's remarks. I myself have a few things to say about these three articles, too.
First of all, they all discuss footnotes, and not sidenotes, and as I said before I fully agree with Andreas that sidenotes are the way to go for the Web.
Joe's main objection is that John's solution is not original. There is some truth in that. Back in 1999 I myself proposed adding such a backlink to a footnote, and I don't suppose I was the first one to think of it. Besides, Nick Finck of Digital Web Magazine fame also contributed to the discussion, and he added the backlink feature to DWM articles (see for instance this 1999 article).
Joe is wrong when he describes John's system as "a 'Back to Top of Page' link in sequined cocktail dress and rouge". It isn't, it refers back to the text referring to the footnote.
As to the praise-heaping on A-listers, I side with Richard. Joe's wrong here.
Nonetheless Joe is totally right in one extremely important respect:
In HTML or XHTML, there’s no such thing as a footnote. No structure for it exists at all.
A footnote system is lacking in HTML, and I agree with Joe that that's weird for a language originally meant for distributing scientific publications.
<small> element. That seems to be just the right solution. So until proven wrong, I'm going to assume that
<small> is "the best" way of marking up footnotes.
With the markup out of the way, we can concentrate on presenting notes on our Web pages. I like Timothy Groves's proposal, but, as I said, I feel it can be improved. It can use a backlink to the text, and besides I miss being able to browse the notes themselves.
When reading a book with footnotes (and not endnotes!), I often catch myself reading through the notes first, and occasionally I think: "What an interesting note! Which bit of text refers to it?" Footnotes can contain nice extra's and side-stories that don't directly have anything to do with the main subject of the book, and this serendipitous information can occasionally come in quite handily. Serendipity is an important scientific tool, and it should be encouraged.
But that's something for the future. Meanwhile, I'm very pleased to find that I'm not the only one interested in footnotes and sidenotes on the Web.
I’m around at the following conferences:
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