Zotero in the Archives

What is this… Zotero? “Zotero [zoh-TAIR-oh] is a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources. It lives right where you do your work—in the web browser itself.” Download it and give it a try, the program sells itself. In this post, I would like to give you a concrete example of Zotero’s power in the field and some tips for using it in your own research.

First, take a tour of my own Zotero library:


How can you create your own while in the field?

Develop a system for collecting the sources efficiently. Consider how you are collecting your sources, the ease of adding and annotating them on-site, and developing a workflow for post-collection processing. If you are taking pictures of sources, consider processing them into PDFs immediately and saving them into your library. Be sure to create a citation in your library for a source as you find it, that way you have the important citation information (page, publication, etc…) in case it is missed in a photo.

Remember, how you organize your data will have a profound effect on your thinking. Make sure that any digital archive mirrors the best practices of any physical archive. Use the tag system to connect ideas rather than to separate sources into folders you will only look at occasionally. For example, a colleague had a “somewhat ridiculous system” of binders, but it forced him to look back through all of his sources when working on his manuscript. Make sure that digital convenience does not come at the cost of scholarly rigor.

Storage space is limited. Zotero gives you 100MB of free storage on its servers, but more space can be purchased for reasonable rates. You can also cut some fat off of your images by optimizing them. Try and make sure you are taking good pictures with plenty of light so that you can be flexible with editing your photos to be lighter while remaining readable.

Annotate! The purpose of having a digital collection of your archival sources it to work with said sources. This means being diligent about your annotation and tagging. You might not have time to read a source in its entirety as you collect it, but make life easier by always leaving a brief child note explaining what is contained in the source and why it is relevant. Use your time in the field wisely by tagging your sources as you move forward. The tags are easy to edit, rename, and sort which means they can keep pace with your thoughts as you swap themes and perspectives in your work.

Do you use different software for your bibliographic data? How would you use Zotero in the field in a different discipline? Do you have a suggestion for how to organize archival sources digitally or analog? Leave a comment!

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