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Footnotes made easy: a guide for history majors

Why footnotes?

The footnotes and bibliography in any scholarly work have two purposes:

  • to acknowledge the author's debt to the work of others
  • to enable the reader to locate the sources consulted by the author

To do that, your footnotes and bibliography need to include complete and accurate information about your sources, arranged in a consistent way that does not confuse your reader. At this point in your research, you will all have encountered unhelpful footnotes with mysterious abbreviations, incorrect information, or other problems. 

There are many ways to arrange the information. This is called "style" and there are several common styles in use. Historians generally prefer the style defined by The Chicago Manual of Style, now in its 16th edition. You may have been asked to use other styles for courses in other departments, for example MLA or APA. Always check with your reader to find out if he/she cares about which style you use. When you write for publication, the publisher or journal editor will tell you which style they want you to use.

Why does it matter? Correct style will make things easier for your reader. And you want the reader to think about your ideas, not the messy punctuation at the bottom of the page.

Where to start

History department guidelines:

The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

  • Trustee Reading Room Reference (DR): Ready Ref. Z253 .U69 2010
  • Stokes Library (SPIA): Writing Shelf. Z253 .U69 2010

Where to get more help

Need more help? Ask!

If the Chicago manual seems unapproachable, here are some more concise introductions to Chicago style:

  • Purdue OWL: Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition
  • Diana Hacker and Barbara Fister. Research and Documentation in the Digital Age. 6th edition, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015.
    Trustee Reading Room Reference (DR): ZA4375 .H327 2015
  • Rampolla, Mary Lynn. A Pocket Guide to Writing in History. 8th edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2015. Temporarily Shelved at Firestone 3 Hour Reserve (RES). Circ/Reserve Desk: D13 .R295 2015.
  • Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers. 8th ed. Revised by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, and University of Chicago Press editorial staff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
    Trustee Reading Room Reference (DR): Ready Ref. LB2369 .T8 2013
    Lewis Library (SCI): Reference (Information Desk) LB2369 .T8 2013

Librarian for History and African American Studies

Steven Knowlton