Zotero for genealogy: getting your ducks in a row

Genealogy requires us to capture and organize mounds of information. We can do it the hard way, or we can use Zotero. This robust, free tool simplifies the capture, organization, and use of citations and research notes. You can cite sources with a single click. Attach images, documents, spreadsheets, and PDFs. Sync to free cloud storage and get your notes anywhere there’s Internet access! It got me through graduate school, and now it’s revolutionizing my genealogy. It’s a GEG’s best friend. In Part 1 of my Zotero series, I tell you why you should bother. Don’t miss out!


What is Zotero to a genealogist?

Zotero for genealogySome genealogists will look at Zotero’s self-definition and draw the quick conclusion that it brings little new to the table. Why do you need a tool “to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources”? You have source citation tools in your genealogy software, right? You have your trusty Research Log. Maybe you use OneNote to gather notes as you read materials. You have Microsoft Word, Excel, and Access. Surely your bases are covered.

I have all these things and have valued them. But once I knew what Zotero could do, I could not bear to keep doing things the hard way.

Zotero allows the genealogist to capture bibliographic references with the click of a button. It allows limitless note taking, flexible organization, elimination of redundant notes, access to data wherever you have Internet access, lightning-fast searches, and so many other tools.

The genealogist who is searching for a single isolated fact in a single isolated place might find this product overkill. I will concede that.

Our research is much bigger than that, though, isn’t it? We find a deed book in the county records office where our ancestors lived. We don’t just look for one fact. We gather everything that might be tied to our family. We need a tool that makes sure we can find our way back to what we have gathered — a tool that maximizes its value to us.

Zotero is that tool.

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 Why I overlooked Zotero for years

Zotero is my superhero. I credit it with making my doctoral dissertation manageable. I cringe at the memory that I almost let this treasure get away. I installed it. I looked at it. But it had two giant strikes against it:

  • It’s plain looking.
  • It’s free.

I know. It sounds like a superficial or even counterintuitive reason to bypass it. But I have a logic.

Generally speaking, I don’t trust software that is free and unadorned. Can the developer be committed to this product long-term, I have to ask? Does the company care about winning my business? If they let me have the product without charging for it, they owe me nothing. I don’t have the right to demand service or updates or improvements.

Could I entrust my doctoral dissertation to this product?

I tried expensive bibliographic software programs (one was $500), and they were never satisfactory — glitchy, limited, and poorly supported. I built my own Access database, and it was better, believe it or not, but still too limited.

Everywhere I turned, I heard that scholars were using Zotero. I began to question why.

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 What sold me on Zotero?

Reason 1: One-click data entry

In prejudging Zotero for the aforementioned crimes of being free and plain-looking, I presumed that it would surely be limited in features, as free products tend to be. A rumor of one special feature, however, first enticed me to reinstall Zotero and give it another shot.

I heard that Zotero could let you extract bibliographic information from all sorts of screens on the Internet with the click of a button. After the endless tedium of typing titles, authors, publishers, publishing dates, etc., etc., for every source I examined, this promise from Zotero caught my attention.

What did I have to lose? It was free. I installed it again and gave it a try.

It worked!

Walk through it with me. I have installed and opened the Zotero Standalone product. Chrome is my browser of choice, so I’ve also installed the “Zotero Connector” extension for Chrome.

In my Chrome browser, I search the local library’s catalog and see a book I want to look at next time I’m there. (Click to zoom.)

Zotero for Genealogy_Library Catalog Screen

Zotero for genealogy_extraction button on Chrome

On any screen that Zotero perceives to have bibliographic information, an icon appears in the top-right corner. It might look like a book, webpage, or article, depending upon what type of source you are extracting. I click on that button, and see a message, “Saving to My Library.”

Zotero for genealogy_extracted library record

I switch to the Zotero screen, and there it is. It did the work for me. It created an entry, pulling all available bibliographic details.

It will do the same thing if I’m displaying a book title on Amazon, an entry from WorldCat, or a newspaper article from the Library of Congress. It will save many hours and prevent many errors.

Reason 2: Data syncing to free cloud space

I want my research with me wherever I go, whether I have my laptop with me or not. And I want my research backed up at all times. Zotero handles both of these requirements. It syncs my data to cloud storage, and offers me an online version of the software.

Zotero for genealogy_cloud syncingIf I am at a library or archive without my laptop, I can use my iPad or smart phone or sit at any Internet-connected computer and pull up my own Zotero information. Zotero gives us 300 MB of data free, which goes a remarkably long way for pure text. If you’re storing images and PDFs, you can externally link these memory hogs from your own hard drive, external drive, or other source of cloud storage. Or, you might want to opt for Zotero’s paid storage, which gives you unlimited space for $10 a month. Who gives unlimited space? It’s a miracle!

Reason 3: The Zotfile Add-On

We fortunately live in a day and age when the articles or books or chapters we want to read can be offered up in an electronic format. PDFs can be reviewed on the run from our device of choice.  We can search text, highlight the important parts, add comments. Then, we go to some other product where we store notes and begin to extract (by typing or copying and pasting) what we found in the PDF into our notes.

But the Zotfile plugin to Zotero does the heavy lifting for us. First of all, it allows you to flag a PDF you’ve pulled into Zotero — in effect checking it out, like a book from a library. It sends the document to a folder you’ve designated for reading. You can then open all of  the PDFs you’ve flagged in your chosen reading device — your iPad, laptop, Kindle, etc. You read, highlight, comment, then check the PDF back into Zotero. When you do, Zotero turns all highlighted text and comments into Zotero notes. It all becomes searchable in your database, with one click from you.

Zotero for genealogy_Zotfile data extractionTake a look at the example above (click to enlarge). In the background, you see a text-searchable PDF I opened for reading through Zotfile.  I highlighted a couple of sentences and added a comment, which you see in the top-right corner.

The window you see to the left of the image shows you what Zotero did with the highlights and comment, when it pulled the PDF back in. It extracted each of my notations in a digest form, with every word searchable in Zotero. Each item tells me the page number from which it pulled the notes.

I’m sure this saved me at least five minutes of typing for a single page of my PDF. Imagine doing it for an entire book.

Summary: Why bother with Zotero for genealogy?

I fairly quickly got past Zotero being plain-looking and free when I discovered who develops the product.  The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media — a department of George Mason University — develops Zotero with university and grant funding. This bodes well for its long-term health. Further, The Roy Rosenzweig Center develops Zotero “open source,” so that other developers can take it and build on it, if desired. If the university should ever stop developing it, others can step in. I am no longer afraid of this product being free.

Zotero sold me on its worth in graduate school. But after graduate school, when I finally had time to return to my first love, genealogy, I tried to use the tools genealogists recommend. I grew deeply frustrated with the limits I found there. Then one day I realized that my superhero tool from graduate school was perfect for genealogy.

More to come on Zotero for genealogy — or go ahead and get started

With this first post, I have only tapped the barest surface of how Zotero can serve us in genealogy. Hopefully I’ve offered enough of a taste to catch your interest. I will be blogging on this subject a number of times in the near future, digging into Zotero’s incredible value. If you want to be notified of future posts, please sign up for The Golden Egg Genealogist newsletter.

Please know this. Zotero is free. No one is paying me a commission to sell you on it. I urge you to try it, because I believe in it completely. It’s gold. Plain-looking, free gold.

If you want to go ahead and start experimenting with Zotero on your own, download it here: https://www.zotero.org/download/. I’d love to hear about your experiences with it. Let me know what future Zotero topics you’d like to see. Enjoy!

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