When it comes to the tools to use for historical research, it is easy to debunk pen, paper and index cards as old-fashioned, no matter how comfortable and reliable their use may be. In the 21st century, computer applications are the way to go for taking notes, keeping track of sources and organizing information. But which applications will do the job you want them to do? One of the programs I use most often is Zotero.
A free program that collects, manages and cites research sources, Zotero works as an extension in Firefox, Safari and Chrome. I use it in Firefox because Zotero has been available for use with Firefox the longest. The first step I took to use Zotero was to download its library plugin for Firefox from Zotero’s home page. The plugin enables me to create a library collection and add references directly to it from databases and websites. In addition, it also makes it possible for me to add references to the library collection manually and to drag PDF’s into it from my hard drive. Next, I downloaded Zotero’s word processing plugin for Word. This plugin allows me to insert citations and bibliographies directly into a Word document as I write it.
With Zotero in place, saving the bibliographic information of promising sources is as easy as making one click on the mouse or trackpad. For example, if you use ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times and locate an article you would like to use, click the Zotero folder icon on the URL address bar, and a PDF of the article and a snapshot of the web page it is on, will be automatically downloaded into your Zotero library. In addition to the article itself, bibliographic information about its source will also be automatically downloaded into the library. The same procedure can be followed to collect articles from Google Scholar, JSTOR and other databases. If you use information from books that are in Google Books, or in other sources of digitized books, you can download the link to the book together with its bibliographic information right into your library with one click.
When you find a source on the Internet that has no Zotero folder icon to click, you can click on the “Create Web Page Item From Current Page” button on the Zotero toolbar, and download a snap shot of the desired page along with its bibliographic information into your library. If you want to take notes from a source that is not on the Internet such as a letter, magazine article or book, you can click on the “New Item” button on the Zotero toolbar and fill in the bibliographic information yourself.
Despite all of Zotero’s technological bells and whistles, the bibliographic information often has to be tweaked, but this is very easy to do.
For each source you want to take notes on, Zotero provides a resizable box for that purpose in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. The notes are attached to the information for the source, as is a snapshot of the web page the source was on, and a PDF of the information, if there is one.
The notes and the sources themselves can be tagged with as many tags as you like so that you can find this information easily as your research progresses. There is also a very good search engine that will locate words or phrases in all the fields and tags in the library collection should you need to do so.
All the notes, PDF’s, and snapshots of web pages are stored locally on your computer, and on Zotero’s servers. Zotero gives you 300 MB of free storage. If you want more than that, 2GB of storage costs $20 per year. For me, Zotero’s storage system means that I can take notes on my desktop computer at home, and then travel to a library with my laptop and do research and take notes there, and when I return home and sync with Zotero’s servers, all my research can be accessed on both computers. In addition, I like the idea that if my Internet service provider goes down and I cannot access Zotero’s servers, I am able to work with all the information in Zotero because it is also stored on my computer’s hard drive.
When it is time to start writing, the Zotero word processor plugin for Word makes citing sources a breeze. To add a footnote or endnote as I write, all I have to do is place the cursor where I want the citation to be inserted, click on the “Zotero Insert Citation” icon in the word processor plugin toolbar, select the proper source from the library, and Zotero creates and inserts the correct citation for me. If necessary, I can add a page number or a prefix or suffix to the citation.
Another nice feature of Zotero is its ability to generate reports and create bibliographies from selected items in the library. To do that, I simply select the items I want, right click, and choose “Generate Report from Items” or “Create Bibliography from Items” in the context menu. If I am writing and have inserted citations into my piece, with one click on the “Zotero Insert Bibliography” icon in the word processor plugin toolbar, a bibliography is automatically created and inserted wherever I have placed the cursor.
Unfortunately, there is a downside to Zotero. It is not a very user-friendly application nor is it particularly intuitive. Help is limited. Zotero has an online user guide called “Documentation” on a tab on its home page. Another tab on Zotero’s home page, “Forums,” takes you to several discussion groups where you can pose questions and get answers from fellow users and Zotero experts. I have also found that many major colleges and universities have made user guides to Zotero available online. For example, here is one from Oregon State University and another from Georgia State University. In addition, this user guide, Mastering Zotero, has been very helpful to me at times. Two Zotero experts wrote it.
For me, Zotero’s biggest weakness is how difficult it is to move items around in a library and sort them. Zotero can be very “clunky” and often it is impossible to sort notes and sources the way I want before printing them out. For that reason, my workflow for historical research also includes using the database, DEVONthink Pro. I collect my research and take notes in Zotero, and then I move the notes I want to use into DEVONthink Pro for sorting and organizing. In a future post, I will write about DEVONthink Pro.