Recently, there have been a number of books on the role of footnotes in scholarly and other kinds of literature. Most respected among these seems to be Anthony Grafton's The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), which first appeared in German under title: Die tragischen Ursprünge der deutschen Fussnote (Berlin, 1995). But there are others, such as Peter Rieß, Stefan Fisch, and Peter Strohschneider Prolegomena zu einer Theorie der Fußnote (Reihe: *fußnote: anmerkungen zum wissenschaftsbetrieb vol. 1, Münster, Hamburg, LIT Verlag, 1995), a not entirely serious contibution to "Fußnotenforschung," "Fußnotenlehre," "Fußnotologie," "Fußnotentechnik," and the search after the "Urnote," and Chuck Zerby (2002) The Devil's Details, A History of Footnotes (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), which is billed on the back cover as a "charming, witty history and exploration of the formal written aside."
It's the last contribution I am concerned with today. Zerby tells us in a footnote to page 90 that he has "borrowed a great number of facts and antidotes [sic]" from Grafton's book. But, he points out, "our interpretations of them differ dramatically." It's especially the interpretation of what Leopold von Ranke did to the footnote. Grafton "approves of what happened to the footnote in Ranke's hands, [he] entirely disapprove[s]. Indeed, it appears (to me) that Grafton's book occasioned Zerby's, as a footnote, one might say. But the cause of the book seems to be more remote. As he tells us on ppp. 8f., as "an inexperienced graduate student, he wrote an article, critical of an established historian, who, in "a barrage of of eighty-four notes," dismissed his young critic, saying "Zerby misquotes me, accidentally, I suspect by substituting 'which' for 'that.'" Zerby finds: "The wound inflicted should not be minimized ... The imputation that the error was an accident instead of a subtle tactical move seems to have been devastating: 'that' graduate student's name never appeared again in a scholarly journal." That's much to be regretted, I would say.
In any case, footnotes can be wielded like weapons. It is true that "a scholar's life is not for the timid." Zerby's conclusion is that footnotes "can be mistrusted precisely because they reveal the inner workings of scholarship."
While this is undoubtedly true, it does not provide the only reason for mistrust. Even when there is no animus at work, there are more than enough reasons for distrust, that is, for checking the scholarship and the facts of a scholar on whom one is relying. Thus, ideally, every quotation and every "fact" used in a publication should, if at all possible, be checked against the originals. A quote referenced with "quoted in x" or "quoted by" is to be avoided at all costs, but this is what is done by Zerby far too often: 80n: "Quoted in Anthony Grafton," 90n: "Quoted in Antony Grafton, 91n: "Quoted in Antony Grafton," 91n: "Quoted in Peter Gay," 92n: "Quoted in Antony Grafton," 93n: "Quoted in Antony Grafton ... in the English translation by Grafton," 101n: "Quoted in Peter Gay ... (Gay is responsible for the abbreviated citation to Webb)," 123n: "Quoted in ibid.," 125n: "Quoted in Michael Schmidt."
Zerby is honest in indicating that he quotes a quote—something that cannot be taken for granted in scholarship, but I'd wish he had gone the extra mile and checked the quote himself. He might have noticed not oly that "Tagebucher" (91n) are really "Tagebücher," that "Idas Brifwerk" (90n) is "Das Briefwerk" (though this title is also correctly spelled by Grafton), but also that Grafton's "facts and antidotes" are not as reliable as he thinks. I am not saying that they are definitely not, but scholarship (as expressed in footnotes) consists of seeing for yourself and "wie es eigentlich gewesen." The devil is in the details. I will check.