The day has finally come: Zotero has found me and it’s here to stay

I never really loved dishwashers. One of the few things that gives me some sense of control over the chaos of life is washing my dishes. I take my time and choose the order, the pace, and the method I will use to get everything clean and dry.

I was highly skeptical of Zotero when I first heard about it. And part of me thinks that this is because I like doing my footnotes the same way I like doing my dishes: calmly and one by one. Zotero disrupts my sense of control over the work. Although it is still my job to proofread everything and double check the details, Zotero cuts in half the time spent on the dishes of academic work.

I am yet unsure if I can totally incorporate Zotero into my scholarly practice. But the day has come when I finally give it a try. I started exploring Zotero’s interface and understanding its organizational structure. It seems like the software has come a long way to get things prettier and more user friendly since the last time I looked at it myself – probably, a couple years ago. For my exploration, I downloaded some of my PDF files that I keep on Google Drive, the main cloud platform I have been using for work and study for the past ten years. Since I have always been paranoid about file names and organization, I’ve learned to be consistent with how I save my data and historiographical references. This surely put me in an advantageous position with Zotero. 

Example of directory structure organization in my Google Drive.

The platform relies on a familiar directory structure: files are organized in a hierarchy of folders that are here called Collections. All the Collections are hosted in the “My Library” main directory. This familiar structure made it easy for me to replicate the organization of my Google Drive files in Zotero. So, as a first try, I created Collections for each of my courses this semester: Digital History, Urban History, and Legal History – which, lucky me, easily translate to larger fields of the discipline.

Zotero’s upper-right corner and the directory structure.

I soon noticed that Zotero will automatically enter proper metadata for most PDF files I uploaded to the platform. Those PDFs that were not given an automated metadata were likely downloaded from unreliable online sources (shhh). But the good news is that it was also not hard at all to enter the metadata for those files myself. If anything, the only hard thing was to try to be consistent with dates – you don’t want some of the files to have “02/2015” and others “2015” in the date field. And since each file comes with its own metadata protocol, it is still up to the user to remember to go in and make changes when necessary for the sake of consistency.

Zotero’s metadata for a journal article downloaded from JSTOR.

One of the main things I want to explore more in Zotero is its notes feature. I am used to reading and marking PDFs in Adobe programs while simultaneously taking notes in Word, precisely because I had never encountered a program in which doing both things was easily achievable. I feel it could even improve my focus and my time management skills, which are obviously mandatory weapons to survive graduate school.

Like many other digital tools for humanities, Zotero is built on JavaScript and SQL languages. It has been around since 2006 and it is no news for many scholars in humanities and social sciences. It could mean, however, the start of a whole new way of working and scholarly practice for me. Excited to see how my own practice changes in the course of the next five years while I pursue a Digital History Ph.D. degree.

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