Goodbye research log — hello Zotero

Zotero for Research LogA research log made perfect sense once. In fact, I felt great pride in my mammoth binder with neat notations, hand-crafted tabs, and cross-referenced numbers. My notebook even had a flap with a Velcro latch to secure it. I protected this treasure, when paper ruled. But paper stopped ruling a long time ago. Once I weaned myself from the inconvenience and limitations of paper, OneNote became my research log of choice — also with limitations. But then came Zotero, which made me ask the million-dollar question: Why do I need a day-by-day research log at all? And guess what? I don’t. 

Welcome to the second installment in this series on Zotero for genealogy. To read my introduction to the subject, see "Zotero for genealogy: getting your ducks in a row."

What’s wrong with a paper research log?

When I first taught myself genealogy in the mid-1980s, I followed the guidance of how-to books and created a paper research log. It helped me to track where I had been and what I had covered. It told me where I had filed the expensive photocopies I made while doing the research.

Paper research log


I had only touched a computer a few times by then. The first one sat in my high school counselor’s office and could do only one thing — ask me ten questions, then tell me I should be an accountant. The second, my sister’s Commodore 64, had to be hooked to a television and could play two very simple games.

An organized notebook was still the best thing going. And I had created a gorgeous research log, in my own estimation.

I maintained it to prevent duplication of effort, and sometimes it did. You see, I had to have the binder with me while doing the research, or I would duplicate effort. I would mine facts from a book I’d already seen, but didn’t remember.

Unfortunately, I didn’t always plan a research day. Sometimes I planned to shop, but ended up at the library. Sometimes I just didn’t feel like carrying that hefty binder. And many archives wouldn’t let me in with it.

When I got home, on those times I didn’t carry the binder, I needed to bring the log up to date. Sometimes I did. Often I didn’t.

It’s the nature of the paper beast.

What’s wrong with an electronic research log?

I love OneNote. I use it every day at work and often at home. It’s a lovely catch-all for those disparate pieces of information you will one day need to find again. (I hear the same about Evernote, but I like keeping my eggs in the Microsoft Office basket, when I can.)

OneNote seemed a natural replacement for the paper research log. I could just recreate the same columns in a weightless, word-searchable e-binder. Microsoft had already created an online edition of OneNote, so I could open my research log anywhere I had Wifi for my iPad. Or I could have my laptop with me, still lighter than the binder used to be.

OneNote Research Log

It was better, absolutely. But some things bothered me. I’m a geek who gets excited about data, and I’m bothered when I can’t control the data. OneNote serves beautifully for information fragments. It’s limited when it comes to structured, related, and layered data. Here’s what bothers me:

  • I have to key in the date, when computers know the date. (A minor whine, I know.)
  • On every line, I have to tell it what library I’m in.
  • If I come back to the same source multiple times, I have to key in the bibliographic data multiple times or locate earlier usages and cut and paste, which takes nearly as long.
  • If my notes, wrapping in the Results column, begin to spread the row too deep, as you see above, I end up with lots of unused space on my screen. And the scrolling of oversized table cells can become clunky, especially on an iPad.

So, yes, if your choice is between a paper log and OneNote, I encourage OneNote. But I can offer a better solution.

How can Zotero replace the research log?

Zotero, a robust and free bibliographic and note-taking software package, gives me everything I ever needed from a research log and so much more. Here’s what I love about Zotero as my new notebook:

  • It can serve as the storage location for all my notes, with links to all my PDF scans (because photocopies and file boxes are yesterday’s trauma).
  • It allows me to organize this information in multiple ways simultaneously — by ancestor, by status of completion, by library, by whatever, without duplicating anything.
  • It guides me in creating a bibliographic source, and I only do it once.
  • It allows me to search across a large database in an instant.
  • It provides access to everything, anywhere I have the Internet.
  • It backs itself up.

And for those who want to see their research in date order, it keeps track of the day I created the reference and the day I last modified it. And if it really matters to me to know the exact date I extracted a piece of information, and the above two dates don’t satisfy me, I can type it in the note. (Though I have never needed to know that.)


Zotero blends structure with flexibility and accessibility,  all the things a data-geek-on-the-move, like me, desires.

OK, I acknowledge it does not at this point have an Evidence Explained (EE) data format. But it supports Chicago Manual of Style, upon which EE was based. You can capture everything you’ll need for EE. And when you put a fact in your genealogy program and cite the source, it will have the EE format, and you do the minor tweaking there.

Bonus! Zotero comes free, and (because free often disappoints) it’s supported by a university — therefore, a trustworthy kind of free.

What about my old research logs?

You have years of research in that binder (or those binders). How do you prevent yourself from duplicating effort, as you start using this new tool?

Easy. You scan your old logs, put them in cloud storage, and create an entry in Zotero that links you to them. Everywhere you go, there they are. Weightless and more valuable than they ever were on paper.

Have I missed anything? I can’t come up with any good reason to keep an old-fashioned research log.

Hello, Zotero.

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2 thoughts on “Goodbye research log — hello Zotero”

  1. Donna, thank you for sharing these innovative “tools” for genealogy with us. While many may not have initially been developed for genealogy specific use, I love learning of new ways to ever increasingly go “digital” with my genealogy research and the filing thereof.

    I am wondering, now, if there are some youtube tutorials featuring zotero and it’s uses specifically for the genealogist? I will be taking a look to see what I can find.

    But, if there isn’t, and, even if there is, I’d like to suggest perhaps putting together a video how-to Zotero for genealogy. I am a visual person and I’d like to see the different things that I can do to both improve, streamline and digitize my research and research experience. Perhaps a series . . .

    I am really enjoying your blog. And, look forward to more from you.

    1. Thank you, Tracy. I feel the same way about finding ways to digitize our work. I want it with me anywhere, any time (and able to fit in a purse). I have been thinking about exactly what you proposed, and I do plan to teach myself to create how-to videos very soon. I know it will help a great deal. Let us know if you find a good Zotero how-to on YouTube, and I’ll add it to the post. Let me know how your Zotero experiment goes!

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