A belated world book day post: 10 things to love about Zotero

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This was going to be a post to celebrate world book day, but I changed my mind—I thought maybe my love affair with Zotero was too much a peculiar obsession of mine. But then as a friend and I were discussing books we’d read recently, he said “I really should make notes on the things I read when I read them. Do you do that? Do you keep notebooks for that kind of thing?”

Funny you should ask that, I said, because I’d started this post on exactly that subject, and then deleted it. So for him, and maybe you, here is why you might want to get Zotero (it’s free) if you haven’t already. I’ve written this post kind of back to front, leaving Zotero’s main uses until 9 and 10. If you’re a student or scholar you’ll already be familiar with it, and if you aren’t, you won’t be interested in that side of it.

1. Using Zotero can protect you against memory loss

Hardly a day goes by when I don’t bang my head figuratively against the desk and go “Argh! Where did I read that?!” The more astonishing or interesting something is, the more I’m convinced that I don’t need to write it down because I won’t forget. But in truth, not only do I forget where I read things, but I misremember them: only the other day, I searched through every book I have by Howard Becker convinced that he’d said the thing I was looking for, only—by the most amazing coincidence—to find it in the book I happened to be reading by Bruno Latour.

I used to keep notebooks as I was reading, I have loads of them, and I felt very virtuous and studious as I used them. But you can’t search a physical notebook. Even worse, I often copied down quotations from books, but because I was enrapt in the book, I didn’t bother to say what it was: at the time, it was the only book I was reading, so I didn’t think it was important. Also, the notebooks filled up with other things, like class outlines for ballet assessments, shopping lists, to-do lists, and notes from lectures.

Now, as soon as I find anything of note in a book that I’m reading (whatever kind of a book it is), I make sure the book is entered in Zotero (using the Wizard tool most of the time, takes only seconds), and then start a notes page on the item (see [2] below).

2. You can use Zotero for notes and quotes

Working with Zotero is the reverse of keeping a notebook in which you record interesting stuff about things you read: you start with the book or article as your object, and add notes or whatever (tags, related items, URLs, pdfs). This way, you’ll never be in the position I described in (1) above, where I’ve got a great quote, but forgot to say where it came from. In Zotero, although you can make “standalone” notes, usually, you’d make them as a “child note” of document in your library. Once you’ve made notes, they’re searchable together with all the other metadata, so if you write a note that says something like “This is the book that Geoff recommended to me, about the hoarder who lived in Croydon,” one day when you are searching for that book but can’t remember the title, you can type in “Geoff” “hoarder” or “Croydon” and come up with that book. If you remembered roughly when you added it to your Zotero library, you could also sort the list by date. Here’s an example of the first few documents that come up if I search for “ballet” in my Zotero:

Example of Zotero search

My best example of this is a quote from a book about Tchaikovsky’s ballet music. It was such a brilliant quotation that I thought I would never forget where I found it. But of course, I did forget. All I could remember was that the line I liked contained the word “conceit.” Having exhausted all the places where the quote might be, I finally typed “conceit” in the search box in Zotero, just in case. And there it was: a note attached to the book which said “This is the book with the line about “conceit” (Roland John Wiley’s Tchaikovsky, 2009). For years, I had been convinced it was in a different book, so all my seemingly rational searching was in vain.

3. Reading your notes in Zotero is a quick way to refresh your memory of a book

The notes section of Zotero allows formatting, so you can indent quotes, use headings, bold and italics and so on. This can enable you to make elegantly laid out notes while you’re reading a book. Some of the most useful things I have in Zotero are copious notes that I made on books and articles as I was reading them. Later, you can recover not just the skeleton information, but also the feelings and thoughts you had about the book at the time. Books, like some relationships, are rarely as interesting the second time around. On the other hand, I’ve discovered that however thrilling a book may have seemed when you first read it, it’s quite possible to forget that you’ve read it, or even heard of it before.

One or two of the blog posts I’ve done on this site came out of making lots of notes and copying and pasting quotes out of books. It was then quite a natural and easy progression from notes to post.

I don’t know why I didn’t start doing this years ago, instead of hitching my wagon to bookmarks in browsers, or the ill-fated Delicious, or other “solutions” which in fact create just more stuff that needs to be located (“Where did I put that bookmark bar with all my useful bookmarks in?”). You can opt to save a “snapshot” with any link that you save. That means that the page itself is stored together with the link, so you can view it offline. That’s important when pages have changed their URL, or you no longer have access to paid content.

5. For musicians: you can use Zotero to catalogue and store digital scores

It took me years to work this one out. As with the Tchaikovsky quote above, it was a single event that made me realize how I could use Zotero for music. I had to reference two different versions of Adam’s Giselle for a post I was writing. Before that post, every time I went to find this score on my computer, I’d end up picking the wrong one, but had to go through every page to find that out. But because I was referring to the score in a blog post, I had to put both of them in Zotero first and add the date and publisher. Then I could add a note in Zotero saying “THIS is the one that has the interpolated solo for x in.”

Likewise, it’s handy for identifying the most useful bits of a score so you don’t have to go through it every time. Here, for example, is a bit of my notes on Clé du Caveau:

6. You can use Zotero to put things that you can’t find a place for

Here are some examples:

  • Handwritten notes: You made some notes on a scrap of paper once with some ideas. You don’t want to throw it away, because there’s a diagram on it. Scan it or photograph it, and add it to your Zotero library. Make a “parent item” with metadata, and add a few notes that say what it is and why you’ve kept it, with some keywords that you’ll remember.
  • Instruction manuals: Most of these are downloadable these days, but sometimes you get bits of paper with things that you know you’re going to want one day, and will almost certainly lose.
  • Recipes
  • Photocopies: In the days before photocopiers could scan things and send them to your phone, did you ever photocopy things, which are now piling up somewhere? Now you can scan them at home, and put them in Zotero.

I think what is so great about Zotero is what it makes you do: as I’ve noted elsewhere, in order to remember things, you need to “code” them in some way. Just the act of putting a document into Zotero, thinking about what it is, why you want it, what metadata might be added to it, what tags or keywords might help you remember it—all these things are “coding” activities are helpful in themselves.

In theory, a lot of this can be achieved by maintaining a good filing system on your computer, and for some things that is the best thing to do, but very often it isn’t, and using Zotero is a better choice.

7. Zotero + ZotPress creates dynamic references on WordPress sites

ZotPress is a plug-in that allows you to use “short codes” to add references to a web page created in WordPress. It pulls out the reference information from your library stored on a cloud server, so that if the details to a particular reference turn out to be wrong or different since you first wrote the reference, those changes that you make in Zotero are automatically updated in your webpages, without you ever having to edit individual pages, because the references on the web page are dynamic fields, not static text. It also builds the reference list automatically in alphabetically order. For an example, see my page on the so-called “Spanish Waltz” — those references at the end of the page, and in the text, were all created automatically by Zotero.

8. Zotero is an amazing reference manager

Zotero is a free reference management app that is an amazingly quick and efficient way of storing data about books, articles, films, web pages, things, conferences, documents. Most of the time, you don’t even need to supply the information yourself: if you have an ISBN number or a DOI (Digital Object Identifier), you just type that in and tap the magic wand, and hey presto, all the catalogue information populates itself in Zotero’s database.

You can also store documents as attachments in Zotero, and you can sort and search. Browser toolbar widgets allow you to quickly download metadata from websites, library catalogues, YouTube etc. Sometimes you have to do a bit of editing—for example, newspaper articles often don’t have scrapable data about authors, so you have to add it yourself. But that’s quite satisfying in a way too.

9. Zotero helps you cite-and-write in essays or articles

This is the main purpose of Zotero, and if you’re doing any kind of course that involves reading, writing, studying of any kind, not using a reference manager is crazy. There are other apps that do some of the same things, (see here for a comparison article), but Zotero is free, and having worked daily with it for over a decade, my admiration for it only grows. There are plenty of sites and videos that will tell you how to use Zotero for writing essays, but one of my favourites is the Zotero Guide from the Old Bailey because it’s very clear and concise. The biggest thing that Zotero can do is insert a reference list in whatever style guide format you need at the end of an essay or article, because it integrates with Word or LibreOffice.

But that’s not my main point in this post—what I love about Zotero is what it can do for your life generally. It can serve as a scrapbook, a commonplace book, a filing cabinet, a personal library of documents of various kinds—recipes, webpages, articles, instruction manuals, together with your private thoughts and commentary on all of those things.

10. Zotero’s “Library Look-up” feature is a huge time-saver

If you are enrolled at an institution that gives you institutional access to online resources, you can set Zotero to check with that institution whether you have access to a reference you have saved in your library (see Preferences>General>OpenURL to set the necessary conditions for your institution). Difficult to explain without trying it, but this is the procedure:

a) Select an item in Zotero—let’s say, a reference to an article.

b) Go to “Library Look-up”

c) If your institution has online access (or physical copies in one of their libraries) you will know about it here. You can then click on the link, and you’ll be taken to the site where the item is available; then you put in your institutional credentials.

Although in theory you can do it the other way round: find the resource (at a journal homepage, for example), then click on the link that says “Log in with your institution,” sometimes this simply doesn’t work, or it’s slow and complicated. Using Library Look-up seems quicker to me, and often offers the chance to download the resource from a different supplier, so that if one link is broken, you know where else you can try.

Why don’t people use Zotero?

Search me. I’ve met so many so-called “digital natives” (i.e. people who were born after the web became a thing) who still do references manually, which to me is like whipping egg-whites by hand when you could use an electric whisk. I can see every reason to keep physical record cards if your purpose is for revision or making connections for lifelong writing projects like Niklas Luhmann’s famous Zettelkasten collection, but for everyday referencing in an essay, or keeping track of what you’ve read, not using Zotero (or equivalent) is crazy.

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4 Responses to A belated world book day post: 10 things to love about Zotero

  1. rudy says:

    jonathan, you are a working scholar and i am not–also, i calculate that i’m at least 10 years older than you–that said, when i was around your age i came across a dictum that i took to heart (maybe it can be traced through zotero): “culture is what you’re left with when you’ve forgotten everything you’ve read”–i didn’t grab at that as an excuse for all the education i’d forgotten but as a description of what kind of old man i am–right now you can’t afford to forget what you’ve read, but the time will come when you are left with being merely the most charmingly cultured musician i know of

  2. Yvonne says:

    I spend my working life researching classical music, including consulting academic literature. But since I’m not an academic or postgrad student, I’ve never embraced reference management software for organising my findings and notes, and the mainstream digital coffins, such as Evernote, have distinct limitations. In so beautifully highlighting its benefits beyond citations and bibliographies, you’ve motivated me to try Zotero. And this post is its first entry, together with a note about my reason for capturing it, of course!

    • Your commment’s made my day—I hope you grow to love it too! I had such high hopes for Evernote, but what a hot, expensive mess that turned into. Likewise OneNote, which I want to like, but only feel mild affection for.

      Another feature of Zotero which I didn’t mention because it’s not one that I use that much, is that you can use it rather like iTunes/Spotify and create “playlists” (in Zotero, collections and subcollections) of materials, which are non-destructive, i.e. you can have the same item in multiple collections, but the item is always there in your library, so that if you delete a collection, or an item from a collection, the underlying item is still there.

      I also didn’t go into the sharing aspect of Zotero, either, but as with Evernote, you can also create shared collections that other people can have read-only access to, or contribute to as well.

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