It wasn’t until I was halfway through my dissertation that I started using a citation manager program. Truth be told, I wasn’t entirely sure what this did, or if even these program were up-to-date with the latest CMS or MLA citation styles. Because I use Scrivener as my main word processor, I have kept separate files of my bibliographies with the writing itself. Also, because I work with ‘pre-modern’ texts, I was unsure if these programs could handle the differing and lack of identifiable information. Citation managers are exactly as they sound: an iTunes-esque filing system where you can input the identification information of a text or object to generate citations later. Not so scary.
This last point, about archival materials, remains an issue, but now that I have given over to Zotero, I don’t quite understand how I went without a citation manager. This month, rather than providing a list of options to choose from around a single resource, I have decided instead to provide some of the primary ways I use (nay, need) Zotero in my research and writing process. There are many citation managers out there, the top three being Zotero, Endnote and Mendeley. Comparison charts are easy to come by online (including this one from the University of Wisconsin).
Aside from being free, the major perks of Zotero for me include:
- Cloud Backup: With a free online account you can backup your citations to their cloud. This means no only will it be saved in the (heaven forfend) chance your computer is damaged, but you can also update those citations while on the go with mobile apps like Zotpad. If you have a mobile keyboard for your iPad and write while travelling, like I do, this comes in unexpectedly handy.
- Copy and Paste: As a first-year composition instructor, I always emphasize that my students learn the algebra of building citations on their own rather than using the incorrect and out-of-date web auto-generators. Admittedly, programs like Zotero are a glorified version of this, but have the money and resources to stay up to date. They provide you the option to copy and paste the bibliography, footnote, or endnote entry of your desired citation style, letting you choose from nearly all the major associations out there.
- Abstracts: Zotero also provides a field to include an abstract of the document. In my research process, I transcribe notes and quotations from book chapters and journal articles, frequently using them to build summaries of what that text contributes to my current concerns. This has become fragmented across my different Scrivener files for different chapters. Zotero keeps those in one place, acting like a cross-referencable annotated bibliography of my thinking.
- Organization: If Zotero was just a giant list, you’d still have to search it with a mental map of how all these texts do and do not relate to one another. But no, the programs includes the ability to create (and nest!) folders by project so you can partition your sources. I do this for each chapter, conference paper, and article, as you can copy a citation to more than one folder. It is a simple and quick way to cross-check your bibliographies and see the map of your thinking in citations for a given project.
- Clickability: Zotero also provides a plug-in for your web browser, installing a button near your search bar that you can click when on an Amazon, Goodreads, or university library page of a book. It will automatically build that citation in Zotero (and if you have the program open, it will save it to the folder you have currently selected). I fret a wee bit about this option as it is often sloppy or incomplete and needs to be double-checked. Frequently this is because the source page itself is incomplete or sloppy, but it is nice to at least have a starter set of data to work from.