Research Tools

Teaching, research, and more

Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with books

Research tools: Zotero, Tropy, Airtable


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!

My blog post, “Old dog, new tricks, etc.”

In order to expand on my blog post about Zotero near the beginning of the semester, I knew I was going to have to take Professor Seefeldt’s words to heart: to get the most out of Zotero, you actually have to commit to using it. With that goal in mind, I made it a point to overcome my innate reluctance to change anything about my note-taking system and used Zotero on two ongoing projects this semester, a chapter for an edited volume on Alexander the Great’s mother in medieval narratives and an article project about dismemberment in medieval films on which I got a revise-resubmit from a journal.

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

I have to admit that, at least in some areas, I did find Zotero a more efficient way to gather my sources and my notes. That’s not to say that it’s perfect, but it did help me prepare drafts for the various deadlines I faced this semester. I think I’ll keep it up, and try to improve on the things where I’m still finding it easier to do things myself.

A screenshot of an article, highlighted with pink and purple, in Zotero
Annotating using different colors in Zotero

Zotero Benefits

  • One area where Zotero proved to be really helpful was in being able to toggle back and forth between different sources and my notes on them quickly. Traditionally, this process involves a lot of opening and closing Adobe Acrobat and Microsoft Word as I try to move between articles I’m comparing and the notes I’ve taken on the most useful passages, which I’ve traditionally kept in a separate annotated bibliography in Word. On Zotero, the same process can be accomplished just by switching tabs in its browser. In a pinch, this came in really handy: I could think to myself, “Oh, man, I know I read something in an article about Kingdom of Heaven that would be perfect for this paragraph, where was that?” Then I’d open every article in my Kingdom of Heaven folder at once and quickly skim over my annotations until I found the tab with the right quote. That saved me a lot of time, I’m not going to lie.
  • Another place where I thought Zotero proved useful was in the ability to save sources directly from a browser. I will admit that this didn’t always work, but when it did, it eliminated the steps of “Find the .pdf in my downloads folder,” “change the file name,” and “move the file to the right folder on my computer (after I find the right file on my computer).”
  • I tried out color-coding my annotations, and though I haven’t quite committed to it, even just reserving purple for “sources I’m going to look up later” and tagging accordingly helped me in a few instances when I was trying to remember sources I had come across.
Automated citations? In my bibliography? It’s more likely than you think.

A work in progress

All that said, not everything was a walk in the park using Zotero, and I did end up reverting to my old ways when I got frustrated. Some kinks that remain to be worked out:

  • As I had thought might happen in my blog post, having “Notes,” “Sticky Notes,” and “Annotations” be three separate things proved confusing and frustrating for me. I kind of wanted all of them to automatically sync with each other for each source, rather than have to search for where I’d said something.
  • I had a surprising number of instances where Zotero not only wouldn’t import a .pdf directly from a browser, but when I dragged and dropped the file in, it wouldn’t even let me change the metadata on it. I eventually figured out what to do in situations like this: you have to right-click the item and choose the option “Create Parent Item.” Still, I was annoyed at having to manually enter all this stuff the same way I’d do in my old-fashioned word document.
  • I’m quite frankly still fuzzy on how to do the automatically generated bibliography and how this will work with my footnotes. I’m sure I’ll figure it out–I didn’t actually have to generate a bibliography for either of these projects, since the revise-resubmit already had a bibliography and I haven’t thus far needed to turn in a written draft of the edited volume chapter. Necessity is the mother of invention, so perhaps when I do need to put a bibliography together, I’ll work out how to do that with Zotero.

Ultimately, just as I concluded in my blog post, I do think that the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. I still have some learning to do, but I’m going to continue to work with Zotero as I write the edited volume chapter and start on some conference presentations in the spring.


One of the major kinds of visual evidence I work with is medieval manuscripts, that is, textual objects that aren’t machine-readable and that incorporate visual elements like illustrations, decorated initials, rubrication, and marginal annotations. In entering letters from the William F. Cody Archive for our assignment, I could see a number of ways in which I could use Tropy for organizing visual evidence for manuscript projects, way, way more efficiently than I currently do.

My blog post, “Tropy and me: the start of a beautiful friendship?”

To expand on my initial introduction to Tropy, I took the plunge and entered in the majority, if not all of the pictures I took the summer of 2014 in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale.

Pictures from Beinecke MS 418

My guiding question in doing this was, how could Tropy have helped me conduct the project I did with this manuscript copy of Le Roman de la Rose in 2014? My initial goals with the project back then were a) to analyze the illustrations and b) to look for patterns in the marginal annotations. To do this, I needed to have images of all the illustrations and a way to categorize and transcribe all the marginal notes in one place.

A screen shot of Tropy containing images of Beinecke MS 418
Off my phone, and into Tropy

My experimental Tropy project taught me a valuable lesson: if you use it to categorize pictures from your phone of manuscripts, it’s probably better not to do them eight years after you took the pictures. Let me explain!

After uploading the images, it was easy enough to go through and rotate them so they were right-side up, and changing the interface from lists to larger icons so that I could browse through the images to identify which I had taken because they had illustrations in them and which I had taken because they had marginal annotations in them. But that was as far as I could go: I didn’t have transcriptions, I didn’t have folio labels, I didn’t even have a good idea of where in the text any of these images were from. It’s been a while since I had to read Le Roman de la Rose.

My next step was to mosey on over to the Beinecke’s website to see if I could find the needed data there. Joy of joys, there’s digital copy of the manuscript online. As I noted in my blog post, my pictures might look prettier than the ones in the digital manuscript, but as I kept going and trying to find my pictures, there I discovered the other reason not to wait eight years before uploading your phone images to Tropy: basically everything I needed out of those pictures was there in the digital facsimile.

Screenshot of an image from Beinecke MS 418
Did I capture the vibrant color and shiny gold leaf? I did! Did I manage to take the picture straight on? I did not!

If this digital edition had existed in 2014, there really would have been no need for me to even take these pictures. So that made me feel a little like a horse-drawn carriage in the era of cars. That said, even if my phone pictures weren’t useful, I think Tropy would be. The digital manuscript would actually even work better for using in Tropy, as finding the necessary metadata would be so much easier, and so would navigating the text to accomplish my goals of identifying trends in the marginal annotations and figuring out what’s going on with those neat little character labels in the illustrations. (Seriously, they’re very interesting–not all the images are labeled this way, and some of them are labeled in different colors, and one image even mislabels a character.)

I didn’t get very far in labeling all my images in Tropy, but I continue to think that it will be a valuable tool for other manuscript analysis projects. Simply being able to have a transcript in the same place as an image of the manuscript page would have made my life so much easier when I was working on a project last year, not to mention being able to take notes on the page. I haven’t experimented much with the tagging system, but that would have worked really well with my project on MS 418, as for the final project in Rare Book School I ended up categorizing them based on handwriting styles, what they wrote, and whether they doodled squiggly lines in the margins as well as writing–all of my different annotators could have gotten their own tag. My labeling project here at the end of the semester might not have been a success, but I think my efforts to answer the question “How could Tropy be useful to me in my research?” were.


I’ll be honest, this is an intellectual challenge I’m going to need some time and practice to wrap my head around. I have a lot of experience in using databases, and had a job for a couple of summers entering data in what I think was Microsoft Access. But I’d never designed a database before, and just those questions of “What am I going to put in this database? What tables am I going to connect? What’s the basic function of this database and what do I want to be able to find out with it?” felt really unfamiliar and difficult to answer.

From my blog post, “Databases: a new kind of creativity for me”

As it turned out, this question was answered for me this semester, not with respect to my research but with respect to a committee I sit on, the Special Convention of Delegates to the Clemson Faculty Senate.

One of our other members was putting together a report on the contributions of special faculty outside of teaching, and as he discussed his methods of assessing research, it occurred to me that many of the ways humanities faculty conduct research wouldn’t be counted using those metrics. I volunteered to help with the report and go through the College of Architecture, Arts, and Humanities blog CAAH Faculty Juncture to search for the research and service achievement of special faculty in the College. And what better way to do that than with Airtable?

Some of the achievements of special faculty in Clemson’s CAAH

The first decision I had to make was, what was the important information to capture? I knew I wanted to include dates, departments, faculty ranks, and achievements, but some of those proved a little difficult. How to categorize things like an interview on a podcast, or organizing a panel session at a conference? Was it more important to preserve a complete explanation of each achievement, or just to present something quantifiable that could be measured in a chart?

I ended up somewhat splitting the difference when it came to achievements. Rank and department were pretty easy–I used “Multiple Select” in Airtable to create options for all the departments and schools in CAAH, and the relevant special faculty ranks, mostly Lecturer and Senior Lecturer. But for achievements, I decided that I actually wanted both something quantifiable and to give more context for each of these achievements, some of which were really unique and interesting. I gave achievements two fields, one a “Multiple Select” column that got a tad messy as I tried to distinguish between conferences and contests and awards and grants and all the rest of it, and one a “Single Line Text” column to copy and paste more detailed information from the blog.

I know that this can be useful in research, too. In fact, I found an example of a project that would be an almost perfect model for me doing quantitative analysis on characters: The Gendered Networks in Early Medieval Narratives project.

Tables by J. Hillner, M. MacCarron, U. Vihervalli , and R. Heffron

Though their sources materials are out of my wheelhouse, the desire to categorize medieval characters by location and gender is very much one I share. But I’m also very excited that I got to use AirTable for a research purpose connected not to medieval literature but to 21st-century advocacy for faculty at Clemson.