Pondering Sidenotes

Screenshot 2016-07-11 10.09.19The last week found me teasing out techniques for working with sidenotes as alternative to footnotes or endnotes. In a contentually brilliant PhD Dissertation on timelines as a digital collection visualisation tool – I was concurrently impressed by the quality of the layout of the entire dissertation to enhance readability. Florian Kräutli’s dissertation 1 is a great example of having some latitude to take the reader into account and make the content of a PhD dissertation usable beyond merely submitting it to check a box.
kraultiSidenotesOne particular aspect of the readability (beyond the carefully constructed prose) is the use of sidenotes for references. Sidenotes are absolutely awesome – they beat endnotes by a wide margin as far as I am concerned and footnotes substantially. Endnotes are clearly a carry over from a time when composing and then printing for dissemination was a static process  and are clearly the method demanding the least technology. You collect your notes and paste them at the end of the text. Simples. Well, at least for the author. Footnotes take a little more technical finagling as the composing processor has to calculate (dynamically) the amount of space needed at the foot of the page and this will alter actual placement depending on the amount of space taken at the bottom of the page. This has become more powerful over time and now seems like childs play. I certainly remember when endnotes were the only option in earlier word processing applications – but they were a boon even being able to collect the notes as one composed. Footnotes were nirvana when introduced subsequently and we all were sore amazed as the word processor juggled the placement based on typographic alterations. Magic. But referencing them as a reader still drags you out of the text and if I am not unlike many of you, Microsoft Word still struggles with formatting within the notes, the superscripted references and formats that you may be applying (or not as you should have) to the text.

Sidenotes to my thinking address many of the users challenges in reading the text. As a point of fact, sidenotes are not that techie. All we are doing is using a slightly larger margin on one side of the page and populating it when necessary. The processor/composer just needs to align the text to the reference. Overflow issues sometimes challenge the immediately adjacent placement, but aside from that it may actually be technically easier to process – and it’s definitely far easier for the reader to glance to the side of the text as they read should they want referential corroboration.  It may (and to some extent is) wasteful from a page space standpoint with more (possibly excessive) whitespace…but is whitespace a bad thing? Where I have seen sidenotes used in the wider whitespace margins recently I have a sense that this is a more readable aesthetically and logically if I want to see the note with more info…there it is.

Brilliant really, and yet unsupported by most – if not all – modern word processors 2. What’s up with that?

One thought on “Pondering Sidenotes

  1. At school I absolutely loved the US prints of Berkeley Physics Course because of the wide margins (and the experimental stuff in the third volume). LaTeX can do margin notes/side notes, but I do not see them used a lot: ftp://ftp.dante.de/tex-archive/macros/latex/contrib/sidenotes/sidenotes.pdf or https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/LaTeX/Footnotes_and_Margin_Notes

    While wide margins on paper are great because they leave space to work with the text, i.e. put your own notes next to it, people probably think they are abusing space in electronic publishing. Though I think it is worth taking a second look: Working with the text still is the same and the solutions I have seen to link your notes to the text that are not like margin notes (for example comments in Google docs) are not very handy.

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