Most genealogy software tools offer an embedded to-do list feature–useful, as far as they go. But for me, they don’t go far enough. Most are not accessible away from your own computer. If you have to move or restore your data via GEDCOM, you will usually lose your to-do items. The tools aren’t designed to let you apply a single to-do item to multiple people. Zotero, on the other hand, provides the ideal research to-do list. It fully integrates with research notes, and it’s free.
Followers of the Golden Egg Genealogist likely already know of my passion for Zotero. It got me through graduate school and has since become the place I store everything I collect of my family history. Click here to see my growing list of blog posts on the wonders of Zotero for genealogy.
Like many of you, I used the to-do list option in my genealogy software until I started to see the superior value of Zotero. I have since come to see that I was wasting time and losing information.
Organizing your to-do lists
The list of things I need to do typically fall into one of these three categories:
- Questions I want to answer about an ancestor or group of them
- Records or books I want to review the next time I go to a particular repository or that I need to order
- Things I have already collected and now need to process into my tree
I like my to-do lists to fall at the top of my Zotero library menu, so I’ve created a subfolder (which Zotero calls “subcollections”) labeled “_RESEARCH TO-DO LIST,” beginning with the underscore character to make it fall first in alphabetical order. I have three subfolders, as you see here — places to gather the three types of to-do items I listed above:
The flexibility of Zotero will allow you to create any sort of organizational structure that works for you.
As we work through the data on our ancestors, we encounter problems that need analysis. We don’t have the time or records to do it immediately. But we want to make sure we do it when possible.
For such issues, I create a note — a to-do item for the specific ancestor or group. In this example, you see an entry for Michael Mayberry. It displays my notes to myself of problems with birth and death dates that need resolution.
Another value of Zotero lies in the ability it gives us to drag a single item into multiple folders. In doing this, it exists only once but can be seen wherever it is of use. In the example above, this entry also sits in a folder labeled “Michael Mayberry.”
Then, regardless of whether you find this entry by way of the To-Do list or through Michael Mayberry’s folder, changes made are changing a universal record. The up-to-date record appears no matter what folder you found it in.
Get from Repository
The greatest value of Zotero lies in its ability to extract bibliographic information from web pages, especially library catalogs. Our to-do lists are, often as not, a tickler to check out a particular resource the next time we are able to go to a specific library or archive. Zotero can grab everything you need to find a record, organize it by the archive in which it can be found, and then become the record in which you take notes and cite the source.
In this example, I’ve created a repository folder called “Hoole.” In it, I am collecting a list of sources from the catalog of the W. S. Stanley Hoole Special Collections Library at the University of Alabama. The bibliographic information you see to the right was captured by Zotero directly from Hoole’s online catalog, using a Chrome Extension called Zotero Connector. I typed nothing to get all of that detail.
I also drag the entry into a folder for Bibb County, Alabama, where it will remain permanently, long after it ceases to be a “to do.” To this record, I’ll add research notes and attach PDFs of any pages I scan. And from this record, I can extract a bibliographic citation. In fact, I can embed footnotes and bibliographic entries in Microsoft Word documents directly from Zotero, using an add-on provided free.
Zotero also syncs data to its own cloud, so I can get to my repository to-do list from any Internet-connected computer. If I find myself able to visit a repository unexpectedly and had no time to print out to-do lists or to pack my laptop, I still know exactly what I intended to do at this archive. I can take the notes in Zotero’s online environment and sync them back to my desktop software when I get home.
This alone would make Zotero my tool of choice.
Log in Tree
Once the research has been done in a repository the last “to-do” is the extraction of the details from my research into my family trees, using my genealogy software of choice. Zotero allows me to keep a virtual in-box of data awaiting transcription, extraction, and updating.
Here you see that I have a lot of work waiting to be extracted from my various trips to repositories. I’ve also created two subfolders, one called “Folder in Progress,” so I can always have the one record I’m working on readily accessible. And I keep another folder for items that are of a lower priority, so I put my attention where it most needs to be.
When you do your research on paper, you know that those papers you bring home from an archive can sit in a box for months and years, waiting for you to extract them. While they sit there, you can’t easily find them, if you remember you have them at all.
In Zotero, you can take all these pending items and drag them into proper folders — places, people, and other topical folders — so that you can access them easily, even before you’ve properly processed the data.
Zotero is a godsend to genealogists, and the more of us who get on board, the more creative we will get in its uses. Give it a try. It’s free!
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