Blog Post

Mark of Zotero

http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2007/09/26/mclemee

Mark of Zotero

Zotero is a tool for storing, retrieving, organizing, and annotatingdigital documents. It has been available for not quite a year. Istarted using it about six weeks ago, and am still learning some of thefine points, but feel sufficient enthusiasm about Zoteroto recommend it to anyone doing research online. If very much of yourwork involves material from JSTOR, for example ? or if you find itnecessary to collect bibliographical references, or to locate Web-basedpublications that you expect to cite in your own work ? then Zotero isworth knowing how to use. (You can install it on your computer forfree; more on that in due course.)

Now, my highest qualification for testing a digital tool is,perhaps, that I have no qualifications for testing a digital tool. Thatis not as paradoxical as it sounds. The limits of my technologicalcompetence are very quickly reached. My command of the laptop computerconsists primarily of the ability to (1) turn it on and (2) type stuff.This condition entails certain disadvantages (the mockery of nieces andnephews, for example) but it makes for a pretty good guinea pig.

And in that respect, I can report that the folks at George MasonUniversity?s Center for History and New Media have done an exemplaryjob in designing Zotero. A relatively clueless person can learn to useit without exhaustive effort.

Still, it seems as if institutions that do not currently do so mightwant to offer tutorials on Zotero for faculty and students who may lackwhatever gene makes for an intuitive grasp of software. Academiclibrarians are probably the best people to offer instruction. Asidefrom being digitally savvy, they may be the people at a university inthe best position to appreciate the range of uses to which Zotero canbe put.

For the absolute newbie, however, let me explain what Zoterois ? or rather, what it allows you to do. I?ll also mention a couple ofproblems or limitations. Zotero is still under development and willdoubtless become more powerful (that is, more useful) in laterreleases. But the version now available has numerous valuable featuresthat far outweigh any glitches.

Suppose you go online to gather material on some aspect of a bookyou are writing. In the course of a few hours, you might find severalpromising titles in the library catalog, a few more with Amazon, adozen useful papers via JSTOR, and three blog entries by scholars whoare thinking aloud about some matter tangential to your project.

How do you keep track of all this material? In the case of the JSTORarticles, you might download them to your laptop to read later. Withmaterial available only on Web pages, you can do a ?screen capture?(provided you?ve learned the command for that) but might well end upprinting them out, since otherwise it is impossible to highlight orannotate the text. As for the bibliographical citations, you can open aword-processing document and copy the references, one by one, or usenote-taking software to do the same thing a little more efficiently.

In any case, you will end up with a number of kinds of digitalfiles. They will be dispersed around your laptop in various places,organized as best you can. Gathering them is one thing; keeping trackof them is another. And if you have a number of lines of researchrunning at the same time (some of them distinct, some of themoverlapping) then the problem may be compounded. Unless you have anexcellent memory, or a very efficient note-taking regimen, it is easyto get swamped.

What Zotero does, in short, is solve most of these problems from thestart ? that is, at the very moment you find a piece of material onlineand decide that it is worth keeping. You can organize material bysubject, in whatever format. And it allows cross-referencing betweenthe documents in ways that improve your ability to remember and usewhat you have unearthed.

For example, you can ?grab? all the bibliographical data on a givenmonograph from the library catalog with a click, and save it in thesame folder as any reviews of the book you?ve downloaded from JSTOR. Ifthe author has a Web site with his recent conference papers, you candownload them to the same project file just as easily.

This isn?t just bookmarking the page. You actually have the fulltext available and can read it offline. The ability to store andretrieve whole Web pages is especially valuable when no reliablearchive of a site exists. I got a better sense of this from aconversation with Manan Ahmed, a fellow member of the group blog Cliopatria,who has been using Zotero while working on his dissertation at theUniversity of Chicago. Articles he read from Indian newspapers onlinewere sometimes up for only a short time, so he needed more than the URLto find them again. (He also mentions that Zotero can handle hisbibliographical references better than other note-taking systems; itcan store citations in Urdu or Arabic just as well as English.)

Furthermore, Zotero allows you to annotate any of the documents youhunt and gather. You can cross-reference texts from different formats ?linking a catalog citation to JSTOR articles, Web publications, and soon. If a specific passage you are reading stands out as important, itis possible to mark it with the digital equivalent of a yellowhighlighter. And you can also add the marginal annotations, just likewith a printout ? except without any limitation of space.

When the time comes to incorporate any of this material into amanuscript, Zotero allows you to export the citations, notes, and soforth into a word-processing document.

Zotero is what is called a ?plug in? for the Firefox MozillaWeb browser. You can use it only with Firefox; it doesn?t work withNetscape or Internet Explorer. People who know such things tell me thatFirefox is preferable to any other browser. Be that as it may, the factthat Zotero functions only with Firefox means you need to have Firefoxinstalled first. Fortunately it, too, is free. (All the necessary linkswill be given at the end of this column.)

While you are online, using Firefox to look at websites, there is aZotero button in the lower right hand corner of the browser. Ifsomething is worth adding to your files, you click the button to openthe Zotero directory. This gives you the ability to downloadbibliographical information, webpages, digital texts, etc. and toorganize them into folders you create. (If a given document might be ofuse to you in two different projects, it is easy to file it in twoseparate folders with a couple of clicks.)

Likewise, you use the Zotero button in Firefox to get access to your material when offline.Then you can read things you glanced over quickly at the library, add notes, and so forth.

I won?t try to explain the steps involved in using Zotero?s variousfeatures. Prose is hardly the best way to do so, and in any case theZotero website offers ?screencasts? (little digital movies, basically)showing how things work. The most striking thing about Zotero is howwell the designers have combined simplicity, power, and efficiency ?none of them qualities to be taken for granted with a digital researchtool. (Here I am thinking of a certain note-taking software that costme $200, then required printing out the 300 page user?s manualexplaining the 15 steps involved in doing every damned thing.)

There is some room for improvement, however. All of the materialgathered with Zotero is stored on the hard drive of whatever computeryou happen to be using at the time. If you work with both a laptop anda computer at home, you can end up with two different sets of files.And of course the document you really need at a given moment willalways be on the other system, per Murphy?s law.

The optimal situation would be something closer to an e-mail system.That is, users would be able to get access to their files from anycomputer that had Web access. Material would be stored online (that is,on a server somewhere) and be available to the user by logging in.

Aside from the increased convenience to the individual user, makingZotero a completely Web-based instrument would have other benefits. Themost important ? the development likely to have a significant impact onscholarship itself ? would be its ability to enhance collaborativework. Using a Zotero account as a hub, a community of researchers couldshare references, create new databases, and so on. And the morespecialized the field of research, I suppose, the more powerful theeffect.

All of which is supposed to be possible with Zotero 2.0, which is onthe way. The release date is unclear at this point, though improvedfeatures of the existing version are rolled out periodically.

But for now, the folders you create on your laptop are stored there? and remain unavailable elsewhere, unless you make a point to transferthem to another computer. This brings up the other serious problem.There does not seem to be a ready way to back up your Zotero files en masse.In the best case, there would be a command allowing you to export allof the material in Zotero to, say, a zip drive. Otherwise you can endup with huge masses of data, representing however many hours ofexploration and annotation, and no easy way to protect it.

Perhaps it is actually possible to do so and I just can?t figure itout. But then, neither can the full-fledged member of the digerati whoinitiated me into Zotero. And so we both use it with a mingled sense ofappreciation (this sure makes research more efficient!) and dread (whatif the system crashes?)

For now, though, appreciation is by far the stronger feeling. Zoterodoes for research what word-processing software did for writing. Aftera short while, you start to wonder how anyone ever did without it.

If you don?t already have Firefox 2.0 on your computer?sdesktop, you will need to download it before installing Zotero itself.Both are available here. The site also offers a great deal of information for anyone getting started with Zotero. Especially helpful are the ?screencast tutorials? ? the next best thing to having a live geek to ask for help.

A good initial discussion of Zotero following its release last fall appeared at the Digital History Hacks blog. Also worth a look is this article.

?While clearly Zotero has a direct audience for citation management and research,? according to another commentary,?the same infrastructure and techniques used by the system could becomea general semantic Web or data framework for any other structuredapplication.? I am going to hope that is good news and not the sort ofthing that leads to cyborgs traveling backward in time to destroy usall.

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