Turabian: The Woman and her Book

The only image I could find of Kate Turabian. It’s from the Univ. of Chicago Press website, so it’s presumably the best one they have.

One of the courses I teach regularly is an introductory course for History majors, entitled “Making History.” One of my responsibilities as instructor is to teach the students how to do documentation in historical writing, or, in a word, FOOTNOTES.

Wait, don’t stop reading. Footnotes are fun! The form of documentation conventionally used by professional historians is called “Chicago style,” after the Chicago Manual of Style, first published by the University of Chicago Press in 1906 and now in its 17th edition. One question I have not yet been able to answer is how it came about that the conventions created for the output of one particular university press came to be adopted by the historical profession as a whole. Other academic disciplines use documentation models sponsored by their respective professional organizations: Psychologists use APA style, as specified by the American Psychological Association; literary scholars use MLA style, regulated by the Modern Language Association. But although there is an AHA, the American Historical Association, there is nothing called “AHA style.”

Undergraduate history majors rarely purchase the Chicago Manual, however. Not only is it expensive—the current edition lists for $70—but it includes much more detail than they need for the kind of writing they’re doing. (I didn’t buy one until I was a PhD student.)

Instead, students typically use specially-written handbooks that package the essential information into a more user-friendly format. In Making History, for example, we use Mary Lynne Rampolla’s Pocket Guide to Writing in History. But when our history majors get to the Senior Seminar, we have them purchase a more serious, detailed, in-depth handbook. At that point, as they prepare to write their Senior Research Thesis, they’re ready for . . . TURABIAN.

What’s a Turabian, you ask? It’s short for Kate L. Turabian’s Manual for Writers of Theses, Research Papers, and Dissertations. Like Cher or Madonna, Turabian requires only a single name to be immediately identifiable to the cognoscenti. I recall going to see a professor during office hours in the first history major course I took as an undergraduate, to ask for help in beginning the assigned research paper, and receiving the answer, in its entirety, “Turabian.”1

I was reminded of this conversation recently when I was introducing Chicago-style footnotes to my Making History students. Although we don’t buy Turabian in Making History, I thought it was important that they at least know the term. Even undergraduate research journals, conferences, or essay competitions might well specify “Turabian” without further elaboration.

Wanting to show my students the person behind the name, I did a little research. Fortunately, the Chicago Manual Online has a page devoted to the history of Turabian, both the person and the book. There I learned that she was born in Chicago in 1893, never attended college, but went to work as a department secretary at the University in 1925, becoming the thesis secretary in 1930.

The thesis secretary at a graduate institution is in some ways the most powerful person on campus. She (and it often was a she) inspects all master’s theses and doctoral dissertations to ensure that they conform to the university’s formatting guidelines, including margins, front matter (title page, acknowledgments, etc.) and documentation. Your professor might have already approved your work; your methodology might be groundbreaking, your conclusions insightful, your prose sparkling. But if the thesis secretary sees that your margins are too narrow or too wide, no degree for you until it’s fixed.2

To help students navigate this stressful process, in 1937 Kate Turabian produced a booklet summarizing the formatting guidelines for Chicago style, so that Depression-era students didn’t have to buy the big manual. Her pamphlet was first published in book form in 1955; it is now in its 9th edition.

Next I looked for some images to show the class, and was delighted to come across the cover of the 3rd edition, published in 1967. This is the one I remember using in college.3 Notice what’s on the cover—mostly pencils and pens of various types, most of the pens having nibs, and one curious-looking round object. Boomers like myself may be able to identify that as a typewriter eraser. This cover image says to me that “writers of term papers, theses, and dissertations” will literally be writing them by hand, and only as a final step producing a typescript (perhaps even hiring a typist).

Notice how the cover of the 4th edition, from 1973, has changed. It is still an assemblage of writers’ tools, still mostly writing implements, but now none of the pens have nibs, there’s a new-fangled marker, and instead of a typewriter eraser there are two spherical objects. These are type balls (known familiarly as “golf balls”) from an IBM Selectric typewriter, first introduced in 1973—which means that the cover is displaying what was then state-of-the-art technology.

The 5th edition, released in 1987, got rid of not only the pens but also the typewriter accessories. That round red object with the spokes is a daisy wheel from a daisy wheel printer. We’re in the computer age! Daisy wheel printers were used before the widespread introduction of laser printers to produce what was called “letter quality” output, that is, as good as what a typewriter could do. I printed my first cover letters for job applications using a daisy wheel printer.

Perhaps because daisy wheel printers were already headed towards obsolescence in 1987, beginning with the 6th edition the Manual for Writers dispensed with images altogether. But collectively, the 3rd through 5th edition covers are a fascinating look at the rapid revolutionary changes in writing technology over a period of just 20 years. I should point out, however, that while the fountain pen has disappeared from the cover of Turabian, I used one to draft this entry (and, in fact, my doctoral dissertation as well). Like vinyl records, the fountain pen is making a comeback!

Kate Turabian retired as thesis secretary at the University of Chicago in 1958, but she continued to work on updates of the manual; she died in 1987. The book is still published in her name, along with the names of the writers who have taken over the updates.4 According to a 2016 study of American college syllabi, Kate Turabian is the most assigned female author in college classes.

Kate Turabian’s New York Times obituary, October 26, 1987.

Now I want to know more about the history of the footnote itself.5 As the American Historical Association says, #everythinghasahistory. Research never ends!