Old dog, new tricks, etc.

Teaching, research, and more

Old dog, new tricks, etc.

A screenshot of a library in Zotero

I found myself somewhat hesitant when approaching Zotero as one of our webtools for HIST 8500, not because it was unfamiliar to me, but rather because it was too familiar, something I’ve tried to use once or twice before. Zotero, along with other citation managers like RefWorks and Mendeley, first came on my radar in graduate school, and then again when I came to Clemson and the English department orientation was introducing library resources I could use in teaching. The truth is, while I enjoy playing with digital ‘toys,’ without any sustained instruction in how to use these tools, and having had the experience of proofreading citations for four years as an editorial assistant at an academic journal, it’s always just seemed easier to me to type in my own citations and manage them through folders on my computer. That said, never let it be said that I’m not open to trying new things! I dove into my assignment using Zotero by taking the initial research I’d done for a chapter I’m contributing to an edited volume and reproducing it in order to import it into Zotero. The end result looked like this:

A screenshot of a library in Zotero
My effort at creating a Zotero folder for a project on Alexander the Great’s mother

So, what’s the verdict?

Zotero Pros

  • It occurred to me as I re-ran searches to trace my initial footsteps researching for this project that this would be an excellent way to avoid duplicating the results of prior searches. My Downloads folder, as well as my various project folders, are littered with unlabeled .pdfs that I’ve been known to lose track of. Maintaining this kind of list on Zotero obviates the need to re-download things that I’m unable to find because I can’t remember the author’s name or the title of the article–the tagging system seems like it would be useful here.
  • I love the idea of being able to connect my notes to my files in one place like this. Though keeping track of what I put in the “sticky notes” feature vs. what I put in the “notes” feature might prove challenging, if I worked it out it might be an elegant solution to my current system of annotated bibliographies in Word.
A screenshot of an article in Zotero with a sticky note marking a comment
Using the sticky note feature in Zotero
  • The ability to bring together not only documents and files but also links seems like it might be a game-changer. I’ve long stitched together notes out of screenshots of Google Books previews–this is a lot more efficient.
A screenshot of "The Medieval Alexander" in Google Books
Linking to a book preview on Google Books through Zotero
  • Yeah, I genuinely find putting my bibliography together kind of meditative, and certainly not the pain in the butt that a lot of people find citation management. Yet, I cannot deny that it’s super cool to press a button and have a program instantly make me a bibliography.

Zotero Cons

  • As previously mentioned, having “Notes” and “Sticky Notes” be two separate things is something I can certainly see a use for, but which in my case might lead to somewhat frustrated copying and pasting between the two. I like to have all of my notes on a given source in one place.
  • As sources that we discussed in our previous week’s class, including Ian Milligan’s “Illusionary Order: Online Databases, Optical Character Recognition, and Canadian History, 1997-2010,” make clear, OCR is fallible, and I found that to be the case when importing sources here, particularly if the .pdf wasn’t great or the author’s name wasn’t in English. Similarly, sometimes it autofilled in a title in all caps, or thought that a chapter in an edited volume was either the whole book or a scholarly journal article, so some time was lost in editing the citation information.
A screenshot of an article with its metadata in Zotero
The author’s last name is L├ęglu–initially, this showed up as “Uglu” in Zotero.
  • There’s a bit of a learning curve in order to be able to use it most effectively, and certainly it’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t reward the investment unless you actually put the time in to figure out a method that worked for your research.

Overall, I do think the positives outweighed the negatives with Zotero. Does that mean I’ll switch to using it? I’ll give it a try with this edited volume chapter and see how it goes!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *