Zotero is free bibliographic software that allows you to easily collect, annotate, and cite bibliographic data. It runs as a plugin for the excellent Firefox browser, which means that you have the web at your fingertips as kyou manage information, and also that it can run on any operating system that Firefox can run on (that is, all of them). It is also open-source, which means that anyone can improve it and develop for it. It is a great alternative to more expensive software, and also has a number of advantages over its more wealthy brethren.
This is a guide to using Zotero effectively in biblical studies, though using Zotero effectively in biblical studies is usually similar to using Zotero effectively in other fields. I will add a couple of remarks along the way, however, especially for those of us in theological fields.
Step 1: Installing Zotero
Your first step in using Zotero is getting everything installed. If you are not already running Firefox (an excellent open-source web-browser), then shame on you. Install that by following the easy steps here.
Open up Firefox and browse to the Zotero site (here). Click on “try out 2.0 beta.” It might seem at first that 1.0 is the better option, but there are SO many new features with 2.0 that it’s really the way to go. I use Zotero daily and have had no major issues with 2.0. The rest of the guide will assume that you are running that version.
Once you click, Firefox will do the rest—download, install, and ask you to restart. Restart Firfox and you are ready to go.
The Zotero website is also a great place for guides and videos, so browse around a bit.
Step 2: Move Your Zotero Directory
The VERY FIRST thing you need to do with your new Zotero setup is change the location where it stores all its data. By default Zotero puts all the information you want it to remember in the same place where all your Firefox settings are stored. This is terrible. It’s like storing your valuables in something that looks exactly like a trash can—someone will eventually forget it’s not a trashcan and throw it away. You’ll either upgrade Firefox, or Windows, or something, and then it will be gone (and backup software may not know to back up this directory). So let’s move it. (Note: if you already have data in your Zotero directory, back it up first using Zotero’s export command. When you move your directory in Zotero it will seem like your data is gone, but it isn’t. It’s still in the old directory. Either move it manually or import the data you just exported).
Create a New Folder. Open up your file browser and go to a directory where you keep important data. Something like “My Documents” in Windows—you know, where you save documents. Hopefully it is also a directory that gets backed-up by your backup software. In that directory create a new (empty) directory called “Zotero.” (For an always-on backup solution that super-secures your data, you may want to put Zotero in a Dropbox directory; see “Securing Zotero” below).
Tell Zotero what to do. Now in Firefox you will now notice an icon in the bottom right corner that says “Zotero” (labeled “1″ in the picture to the right). Click on that to get your Zotero window up. Then look for a gear icon (“2″ in the picture), which you should click, and select “Preferences.” We’re going straight to the “advanced” tab (“1″ in the second picture), then clicking the “Custom” option (2), and then clicking “choose” (3). Select the directory you created and click ”
Step 3: Get Some Data
Alrighty, now that we know our data isn’t going anywhere, let’s get some actual data. You can add books and articles and what not manually, but that is SO 2008. One of the great things about Zotero is that it sits in your web browser, so you can use the web to get data for you. A number of popular sites (Amazon, Google books, etc) support Zotero data. Chances are your school library does as well. Let’s start with Amazon, though. Go here. Now look at the address bar. There should be a little folder icon there. If you click on that, it will bring up all the books on the current page, from which you can select which to add to Zotero. Now go here. Just one book this time, and the Zotero icon in the address bar is now a book. Click on it and it will add the bibliographic data to your database.
A lot of blogs also support Zotero, including this one. See the icon in the address bar when you go to nerdlets.org? That means you can add blog entries straight into your Zotero database.
Play around for a bit. Try Google books. Or the library of congress. Or your favorite library site. Also notice the various icons in the middle section of your Zotero interface. These all allow you to add a variety of things to Zotero, from webpage snapshots, to manual data for books that are not on your preferred website, to files on your computer.
Step 4: Using Zotero with your Word Processor
Install Word Processor Plugins. Now that you have some data you probably want to use it. Zotero has a number of plugins that integrate with your favorite word processor. You can find out more about those here, and the install page is here. Make sure you scroll down for the 2.0 plugins; the 1.0 plugins will not work. The plugins install just like Zotero itself, as browser add-ins. The plugins update automatically, and automatically install all the needed files into your word-processor. Easy. There is one for Microsoft Word (here) and for OpenOffice (here).
Format your citations in the correct style. Now Zotero will work with your word processor, adding data into footnotes as needed, and all in the proper format. Speaking of proper format, you may want to add bibliographic styles not included by default. For theology or church history you’ll probably want to use what Zotero calls “Chicago Manual of Style (Full Note with Bibliography),” which is included by default. For biblical studies you’ll probably want the SBL style, which is not installed by default, but fear not! Because Zotero is open source anyone can create their own style, and a number of users have done just that. Most likely your preferred style is out there somewhere. Let’s install the SBL Style as an example. Go to Zotero preferences and click on the “Styles” tab. Then click on “Get additional styles…” This will take you to a webpage with a whole list of styles; just click “install” to add it to Zotero. The SBL style guide is in that list, or you can install that by clicking here.
Back in the preferences dialog click on the “Export” tab. Select the style you prefer in the “Default Output Format” box.
Cite, my friend, cite! Now open up your favorite word processor. I’m using OpenOffice, but the process is the same for Word. You should notice a new toolbar. If you don’t see it, go to “View” and “Toolbars” and look for one that says Zotero. Once you find it, hover over each button to see what they do.
Let’s assume you want to add a citation that is SBL compliant. Create a footnote. Now add a citation (“1″ in the picture). If this is the first Zotero citation you have added a window will pop up asking about how you want to format this document. Make sure SBL is selected and click OK. You will notice that a field has been added to your footnote (2), and a new dialog window has popped up (3). Now search for a citation you want to add, either by browsing through folders or by using the search dialog (4). Select your citation (5), and add page numbers (6). You can also choose “Multiple Citations” if necessary (7). When you’re done click OK (8).
Once you are done with your document you can automatically generate a bibliography (3rd button). You can edit citations with the second button. Have fun!
Step 5: Helpful Hints and Best Practices
Zotero is pretty powerful software, but you have probably already encountered some problems. Here are a few tips on how to use Zotero effectively.
- Use folders sparingly, use tags generously. Folders are a great way of organizing information, provided you don’t have too many and the hierarchy doesn’t go too deep. I create folders for each major topic that I am studying. Every paper I write or class I teach gets a folder. This allows me to have a kind of record of research. But if you get to specific this can get unwieldy. Instead, use tags for the specifics. Tags are search-able and non-hierarchical. You can add as many as you want and it won’t junk up your database.
- Every paper your write gets its own folder. Again, this allows you to retain a record of research. Anything you cite in a paper goes in that folder.
- Stick to a standardized naming scheme for authors and publishers. One of the major problems with Zotero is that it does not store author and publisher names in a hierarchy. So if you add Calvin’s Institutes under “Calvin, J.” and then later one of his commentaries under “Calvin, John,” Zotero will think it is two different authors, which will mess up your bibliography. Rather than making lots of piddly changes down the road, stick to a standardized naming scheme now. Make it work with whatever bibliographic style you are using. For authors I stick to last name and 1-2 initials. For publishers I always exclude the words “Publishing” or “Press” unless its a university (“Oxford University Press”). If the book contains a number of articles, I always have a separate entry for the book as a whole, then “copies” of that entry for various articles. Find a system that works for you and stick with it.
- Always type out quotes you want to use in Zotero first, then copy and paste into your article. I like to do research “on the fly”; that is, I like to research as I write, and write as I research. This means that my papers are always in process. It also could mean that my research is less easily reusable. In order to find that quote I need to find that paper in which I typed it out. To avoid this, type out all quotes as notes in Zotero. Right click on the book from which the quote is taken and select “Add note.” On the top line type two or so words that identify the topic of the quotes (think: “how will I search for this in two years”) and the page number. Then type out the quote (Zotero has a handy “quote” style), then any comments you might have. Notes like this will always be associated with their respective books, no matter where you drag and drop that book, and notes can be tagged like anything else.
Step 7: Syncing Zotero
The latest version of Zotero allows you to sync multiple databases, and also sync online. To set that up, follow the directions here. That will allow you to sync your data. To sync files—like all those PDFs you have saved—things get more complicated, but all is explained in the aforementioned link.
Please remember, though, that SYNC does not mean BACKUP. Sync means that everything you do is synced between multiple computers. If you do something idiotic, your idiocy will then be replicated 10 fold. A mirror doesn’t make your face any less dirty. You still need a backup, so keep reading.
Step 8: Securing your Life’s Work
I now use Zotero as my bibliographic database, as a document library for all my PDFs, as a web bookmarking database, a recipe book, an interview manager, and a job-search tool. If it fails, I’m sunk. You need to back up your Zotero database. How do you do that?
Zotero is just a collection of files. Place your Zotero directory somewhere that gets backed up every day, like your My Documents folder (see above for how to do this). Better yet, use Dropbox. Dropbox is an application that you can install that creates a folder, and then automatically backs-up and syncs any data you put into it. Dropbox is free, works on any OS, and provides you with 2gb of storage. You can install it by going here. Once you have your dropbox folder up and running, move your Zotero folder into it.
You should also have a local backup. That is, every night your computer should back up all important data onto a separate hard disk. By an external harddrive (newegg.com) and backup your data to it daily (using something like the free version of syncback.
When your research is searchable, re-usable, and secure, life is good.