What is this… Zotero? “Zotero [zoh-TAIR-oh] is a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources. It lives right where you do your work—in the web browser itself.” Download it and give it a try, the program sells itself. In this post, I would like to give you a concrete example of Zotero’s power in the field and some tips for using it in your own research.

First, take a tour of my own Zotero library:

How can you create your own while in the field?

Develop a system for collecting the sources efficiently. Consider how you are collecting your sources, the ease of adding and annotating them on-site, and developing a workflow for post-collection processing. If you are taking pictures of sources, consider processing them into PDFs immediately and saving them into your library. Be sure to create a citation in your library for a source as you find it, that way you have the important citation information (page, publication, etc…) in case it is missed in a photo.

Remember, how you organize your data will have a profound effect on your thinking. Make sure that any digital archive mirrors the best practices of any physical archive. Use the tag system to connect ideas rather than to separate sources into folders you will only look at occasionally. For example, a colleague had a “somewhat ridiculous system” of binders, but it forced him to look back through all of his sources when working on his manuscript. Make sure that digital convenience does not come at the cost of scholarly rigor.

Storage space is limited. Zotero gives you 100MB of free storage on its servers, but more space can be purchased for reasonable rates. You can also cut some fat off of your images by optimizing them. Try and make sure you are taking good pictures with plenty of light so that you can be flexible with editing your photos to be lighter while remaining readable.

Annotate! The purpose of having a digital collection of your archival sources it to work with said sources. This means being diligent about your annotation and tagging. You might not have time to read a source in its entirety as you collect it, but make life easier by always leaving a brief child note explaining what is contained in the source and why it is relevant. Use your time in the field wisely by tagging your sources as you move forward. The tags are easy to edit, rename, and sort which means they can keep pace with your thoughts as you swap themes and perspectives in your work.

Do you use different software for your bibliographic data? How would you use Zotero in the field in a different discipline? Do you have a suggestion for how to organize archival sources digitally or analog? Leave a comment!


16 Responses to Zotero in the Archives

  1. Caroline says:

    I’m a Zotero-user and have been for a while. Here are a few more details about the service:

    Zotero only works within Firefox. There is now a stand-alone app available for people who prefer Chrome or Safari or IE, but I haven’t used it yet. It seems that any stand-alone app is going to take away some of the convenience of having it integrated with the browser.

    Also, when in Firefox, Zotero makes it very easy to add citations as you search (e.g., in JSTOR, Web of Science, PubMed, specific journals’ pages, etc.). An icon that looks like a paper shows up in the address bar on these pages, and clicking it automatically adds the citation to your Zotero library. You can change your preferences so that it also includes a snapshot of the page or any PDF that is available to download. You can also add webpages the same way, although the metadata that comes with it might not be very complete (the screenshot is useful, though).

    When citations are added automatically, you get whatever metadata the site included. Sometimes this means it comes already tagged, and those tags aren’t necessarily ones you would choose. You can choose to turn off this feature in your Zotero preferences, or keep it but hide tags that you didn’t create when searching through your files.

    All-in-all, I love Zotero. It works well with Word when I want to make a bibliography, and since I use Firefox, the integration is so convenient. I paid for 1gb storage this year as a way to back-up my files, but since most of my files include PDFs, and I’m a grad student who has been collecting papers for a few years now, 1gb was nowhere near enough to store my entire library.

  2. Alex Galarza says:

    Thanks for the assist Caroline! Excellent info on the other features that make Zotero such a time-saver.

  3. Julie Platt says:

    Smart post, Alex! I particularly applaud your point that “how you organize your data will have a profound effect on your thinking.” I’ve found this to be true when working with any research data, especially since Zotero makes organization pretty easy. Just wish it were available for Google Chrome.

  4. Lillian says:

    Mendeley, also open source, provides a similar service. The capability to transfer information between the two (Mendeley and Zotero) is decent, as well.

  5. adamsmith says:

    @Lillian – mendeley is indeed similar to Zotero, but while it is free as well, one of the big differences between the two products is that Mendeley is not open source. Whether that matters to you or not is a matter of personal taste, of course, but in case open source is an important factor in your decision you’d want to go with Zotero.

    • Lillian says:

      @adamsmith – Thanks for the clarification – I stand corrected. 🙂 In this instance, I mistyped and clearly meant “free” instead of “open source”.

  6. I use Mendeley because I was introduced to it before Zotero, and I like the desktop version. It sounds like Zotero pulls direct from browser better, but since I use the desktop version so much I imagine I’ll stick with it for at least my current projects. I’m glad to see free reference management tools out there, because when I pull for a lit review I start with a huge library and then weed out articles as I hone in on a specific subject. This means I have a lot of PDFs floating around.

  7. Dubi says:

    I use Mendeley as well – it’s not open source but it IS free and its database IS open and they do cooperate with the community extensively (they have an API, for example, that gives access to the 100mil document database).
    A benefit of Mendeley over Zotero is the space given for free: Mendeley gives 500mb plus another 500mb for shared groups (and you can always form a private group for yourself alone, so you’ll have a full GB).
    I don’t know how Zotero does annotation on PDFs but one of the main benefits with Mendeley for me when working with archival material is that I can highlight PDFs even when they aren’t OCR’d (basically, you just highlight a rectangle of anything).

  8. Matthew Winslett says:

    @Caroline, there is a plugin available for Chrome, Safari (and maybe Firefox, but don’t quote me on that) for stand-alone Zotero that gives you the “click and have your citation entered automatically” functionality of the default Firefox extension. I’ve used it a little- it works as expected and with the same degree of accuracy.

  9. Ryan Weberling says:

    Another use of Zotero that I’ve been experimenting with is documenting people/places. I made a separate folder or library for “people,” and I’ve been adding faculty profiles, CVs, personal websites, and even a few blogs directly from the web. Multiple pages/sites can be added under one person’s name, and then their books or articles in your main library can be linked with these resources for quick reference. A quick search by keyword or research focus can pull up the person’s page and everything you’ve linked together. Instead of just a list of papers, this will give you an up-to-date picture of who’s doing what and where.

    One particularly useful application of this would be for applicants to grad programs. Cataloguing key people of interest by their focus areas certainly would have helped me keep all of my schools straight when applying last year. You could search by the school’s name to see tally up which place has the most faculty you are interested in, or I suppose you could even add institutes or other resources. This could have saved me so many hours browsing and rebrowsing departmental web sites!

  10. […] working on exhibitions at FIT, so that everyone could have access to the same useful sources).  This article provides a great tutorial on how to use Zotero and the benefits it provides for graduate […]

  11. Enrique says:

    THanks, for your step by step guide!

    I developed exactly the same procedure earlier this year, and also at Spanish archives. But after months of photographing i got caught! They dont understand what type of documents social historians need.

    The key is how to digesting all the photographs, (with gscan2pdf works conviniently, and it can even OCR pretty well, even off photographs, although for image processing and clean up the most fabulous is Scantailor, both opensource) and whether it makes sense to make an item for each item as such, if the documents werent so important or in seriality, i sometimes just made 30 to 100p pdf files, its easier to browse through them and if one needs to cite a document, this has to be done manually anyways, as inserting citation doesnt work well with Archival sources.

  12. Eli Awtrey says:

    FYI – it’s possible to use DropBox or another cloud service to sync your attachments to get around the 100MB free limit at Zotero.com. I’ve been doing this for a few weeks and am pretty satisfied with the results. The keys are (a) do NOT sync your Zotero library in total – it could corrupt the database, and (b) use something like ZotFile to move/rename your annotated PDFs to a DropBox friendly directory.

    If any are interested in more details on my workflow, post below and I’ll put some more time into outlining it 🙂

  13. […] Zotero in the Archives:  In this post, Alex Galarza discusses the program Zotero, “a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources”. In a screencast, Alex discusses his own Zotero library and how it has benefited him. Then he gives some handy tips on creating your own: develop a system for collecting sources efficiently, use tags to connect your research ideas, and be diligent about annotating your sources to make them helpful to your research. […]

  14. […] working on exhibitions at FIT, so that everyone could have access to the same useful sources).  This article provides a great tutorial on how to use Zotero and the benefits it provides for graduate […]

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