I’m sure I didn’t coin the term “footnote mining”, though I hadn’t heard it before starting my MA last year and I seem to be the only one here who uses the word as a Thing. Maybe it isn’t common parlance, but it’s apt.
Footnote mining goes like this: you have a paper to write. The surest way to writing a good, well-documented essay is to find one recent, solid book or article on the topic of interest (or a related one), then to follow the footnotes to the original sources, which will likely lead you a few books deep as you follow those footnotes and citations until there aren’t any to follow anymore. It’s like chipping away at stone for mithril, only in a library.
So much of what we do as history students depends on work other people have done in gathering together material. Searching a library database is always inadequate (WorldCat has enormous blind spots, and university library search systems are often worse), getting in on the stacks with your Dewey-decimal-fu is often a vital first step but from then, you’re searching citations. For whatever small contribution you’re making, whatever new argument, you’re relying on the work of usually dozens of historians who’ve studied in the same field.
Our research amounts to building paper towers, with our own little twist on things sitting on top of a vast ziggurat of other people’s work.
The problem with footnote mining, though, is that it doesn’t support interdisciplinary approaches all that well—something I’m starting to run into for my own research. Last term when I worked on urban cartography in the Renaissance, I found that Art historians and historians proper were stuck in their own little universes and rarely sharing concepts and discoveries between them, even though it would have made things vastly easier for researchers on both sides if they did. Likewise, there’s a lot of work being done in Comparative Literature at the moment on witchcraft trials that seems completely severed from what historians have done (sociological works, too, often don’t touch on the historiography or the literary studies on the topic). There’s very little communication going on. Despite how many times I’ve heard interdisciplinary approaches hyped in universities, in history we’re often discouraged from going that route in practice.
The citations tend to stick in one discipline, mainly, so footnote mining is still useful in the field you’re looking at, but often won’t give you any clue what’s been done in other disciplines on the same topic. Thanks to how unsatisfactory a database search is, either you stumble on them by accident or have to go stack-combing (did I coin that too?) in another part of the library. Just as a side-note, the McGill humanities library is huge.
It’s weird, after all this time, that interdisciplinary approaches are heralded as exciting and all but are still such a small part of academic history. As an undergrad, I thought the trend was towards exchanging ideas in the humanities…and maybe it is, but it’s a slower process than I once hoped.