Earlier this week, I led a one day course on using Zotero at the British Library (part of their Digital Scholarship training programme for staff) – many thanks to James Baker for the invitation.
It was a very hands-on course, starting with the assumption that most people there would never have used Zotero before, and gradually building up in difficulty. We packed a lot in in one day and the approach seemed to go down well.
James also generously agreed to me opening up the web resource I put together for the course (in PmWiki) for public consumption. It contains most of the exercises we worked through during the day – they are quite strongly BL-oriented, with plenty of my favourite topics (naturally…) but I think more generally applicable – as well as selected examples of the different kinds of things people and projects have done and are doing with Zotero – from teaching, group collaboration, research management, plugin development, publication, integration with other resources, and so on.
And so, here it is, under a Creative Commons license – use, re-use, mix, borrow and adapt if you’d find it useful!
Additionally, I found lots of interesting things while I was preparing the course, so I put them into a Zotero bibliography – well, what else?! – and made it into a public group, which Zotero users are very welcome to join and add to:
I found myself answering the question “Why Zotero?” with some personal history, quite a bit of which was chronicled here on this blog over the years. It occurred to me that I’ve been trying to manage references since my undergraduate dissertation more than 15 years ago, and I’ve been publishing bibliographies online for more than a decade (in the firm belief that it’s one of the most useful small things scholars can do for each other and for students). I’ve been through:
- index cards (u/g and MA dissertations)
- a homebrewed MS Access database (for my PhD secondary sources)
- Endnote (for a while, but only because I got it cheap from my uni)
- BibDesk (which I still use to some extent)
- Connotea, Mendeley, and probably other things of that ilk
- Semantic Mediawiki (interesting but too much hard work)
- wikindx (still in use, but probably phasing out soon)
- and quite a few other things used so briefly I’ve forgotten them…
When I did my PhD research in the early 2000s, I put sources I wanted to quantify in an Access database; secondary references in another one; transcriptions in word documents (slightly later, they ended up in a different text database); all separate objects, hard to relate to each other. Even though most of my PhD sources haven’t been digitised (and probably never will be), today with Zotero I would approach much of that task quite differently. OTOH, my interest in references in recent years has more often been to do with how to publish large bibliographies online and keep them up to date. Well, Zotero covers that too.
So, for me Zotero has won the contest, hands down. A few of the tools listed can perhaps do specific things better than Zotero, and most of them are just as free (several are open source), but none of them is as versatile and powerful while being so easy to use and to customise. (Wikindx, for example, is excellent, but you need to be able to install a MySQL database and really to understand a bit about PHP and web apps.)
Zotero provides much more than just “reference management”. It isn’t just that you can quickly save and archive lots of different kinds of things you find online, but also that you can use it to manage research as a process, with changing needs over time – right through from collecting sources to analysis and writing and publishing.
In 2009, when Zotero was in its infancy – before much of its cloud and collaboration features existed, or they’d only just begun to develop – and I’d barely used it (just 42 items in my 3000+ library were added before 2010), I blogged about the impossibility of online collaborative bibliographies. Hahaha!
On Wednesday, I created a Zotero group live during the course (that took about a minute), and in the space of half an hour about six people, most of whom had never used Zotero at all before that day, put about 30 items in it, and added notes and attachments, ranging from news articles and reviews to youtube videos. (At the other end of the scale, of course, there are Zotero groups creating major resources for their communities.)
Sometimes it’s great to be proved so completely and utterly wrong.
Even in that 2009 post, I see that I added a comment wondering if Zotero could be the solution to the problem. Maybe, too, the discussion we had about the decision to turn the RHS British and Irish History bibliography into a subscription service could look very different now.