MERCER-GOLDEN: Why we cite

Meditations

Did you know that millennia of scholarship occurred without footnotes? Or in-text citations? Or bibliographies? Scholars used to get away with a lot that this year’s senior class can’t. Alas.

I’m groaning because I have two senior projects due Friday, and like many of my classmates — we’ve all got a perpetually harried and anxious look on our faces, so we’re easy to spot — I’ve spent a semester thinking deep thoughts about subjects I find fascinating. I wrote a draft, I wrote another and now I’m staring into the cold eyes of reality: I actually have to finish off the project and hand it in.

Which is why the generations of scholars who preceded this year’s senior class are the subject of my envy. When they mentioned a source, or even a particular text, they didn’t have to find the specific page in a pile of Post-ited books lugged from the library or cite these pages in a consistent fashion. They didn’t need Post-its (or have them). They didn’t agonize over choosing MLA or Chicago style, or if endnotes or footnotes were the way to go. (I’ve since learned that in-text citations are kind of last Tuesday.)

I’ll concede there are some benefits to writing a thesis in this century. Up until the 1870s, few libraries in the United States were free and open to public. Few people other than white men could participate in scholarship. There was less need for citations because the small scholarly community was aware of the same set of texts: They had, after all, been educated in the same places, and read the same books.

As the community of students and scholars educated in the United States and around the world has grown, there has been a greater need for transparency and academic accountability. The volume of published material has increased wildly since the days before footnotes, so that the number of available texts grows constantly. Because there is simply more information available in more places, and more people who read scholarly texts, citing has become an essential part of scholarship. Predictably, the Internet — especially our beloved JSTOR — has changed the way we do research, and even, I would argue, the way we think about information: as something accessible, easy to find and public.

One of my theses deals with public art and libraries in America at the turn of the 19th century, and what it meant for ordinary people to suddenly have access to paintings and texts in a way that they hadn’t before. Footnotes have become the symbol of this change in scholarly practice, but they are only a small part of the revolution that has occurred in the last two centuries about who has access to information and who gets to have an opinion — a movement from the few and privileged to the many.

I acknowledge that we at Yale are still the few and privileged in many ways (including our access to the second-largest university library in America; drat you, Harvard), but we are also different from the privileged few that existed at Yale before the advent of the footnote. Just as scholarship is more transparent, our community of scholars is more diverse. I can be irritated about the hours of work that lie ahead of me, but I am delighted to be part of a different world than the one that came before.

So yes: I’m grouchy, and if I snarl at you on the street, it’s only because I’m thinking about footnote 72 on page 20. In a few days, I’ll be entirely happy to live in this century, and delighted that there is a place for me in scholarship after centuries of that not being the case. But until then, I’d advise not getting in my — or other senior thesis-writers’ — way. We’re being held accountable by standards that are much greater than ourselves, and as such, are not really denizens of any reality except the one that lives on the soon-to-be-turned-in page.

Zoe Mercer-Golden is a senior in Davenport College. Contact her at zoe.mercer-golden@yale.edu .

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