Citation Management 101 – Zotero

Welcome to the first discussion of a resource for my Citation Management 101 series. You can read the introduction to the series here.


I’m kicking off with a discussion of Zotero, because it was the first program I tried. Why? Because a techy, smart professor of mine recommended it. (“Recommended” might not actually be a strong enough word, actually; by the end of her pitch I was almost convinced it was actually magic.)

Zotero is open source, and there seem to be a lot of ways for users to participate in its development. The cool factor here is admittedly high.

A big selling point for librarians is that it is free. In a world where librarians are increasingly asked to do more with less, the fact that they can recommend a good quality resource to users at no cost to their users or to their library is a pretty big win.


Zotero works through a browser extension, a word processer extension, and standalone program. It’s not necessary to download all three of them, but I did, and I recommend it for optimal functioning. Still, though I found them quite simple and fast to install, this initial effort may be enough to dissuade some potential users.

I’ll attempt a brief overview. Zotero allows users to develop a personal library, to which they can save sources – and files – usually with only one click. Once saved, a file can later be accessed offline for reading. These files can then be organized as needed. The handiest part is that Zotero retrieves the metadata (for the uninitiated, this usually includes author, name, and so on – basically everything you need to reference something) from the source. You can do the same for OPAC (library catalogue) entries, extracting information needed to reference books with just one click, and for other websites you might occasionally need to use. Then, from your word processor, you can easily add in text citations or references in an impressive variety of formats.

(You can read about the scads of other more advanced features on their about page. )


This doesn’t always work as seamlessly as it might. A frustrating experience of mine involved discovering that many of the files I was using lacked appropriate metadata, so there was nothing for Zotero to retrieve. Furthermore, there is no way to add metadata to a PDF file on Zotero. This means that you have to create a new entry and then attach your file to it. After I learned how to do this found it to be a fast and easy process, but I had to Google for instructions, and this certainly added to the learning curve and took away from the ease of use and one-click feel to the process. (I really don’t understand why Zotero wouldn’t allow users to add metadata to files – any ideas on this one?)


I think this resource is best suited for users who are inspired enough by its many benefits to push through the learning curve. I suspect most university students fit into this category. It may be less well suited for users who are more easily discouraged (for example, my experience is that users who are less confident in their technological skills are often dissuaded by encountering longer learning curves), impatient, or just short on time in the immediate future.

For librarians and other LIS workers, I suggest warning students about the learning curve when recommending the resource so students are prepared to meet a few roadblocks on their way to Zotero success. And of course experienced help at the reference desk for new users is always valuable.


Zotero’s Quick Start Guide is a valuable resource for instructions for new users. Scroll through the topics and click on each for more information and instructions with pictures.

For those who prefer video tutorials, the Video Tour offered in the above site doesn’t offer straightforward beginner instructions, but rather demonstrates what Zotero can do. Instead absolute Zotero beginners might prefer this video tutorial.


Have you used Zotero? Would you try it? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


And please stay tuned for my next post in this series, on RefWorks.


Citation Management 101 Series

Because I’ve found that writing helps me learn more about things than I might otherwise, and because I’m interested in learning more about citation management tools, I’ve decided to write a short series of posts presenting an introduction to some of the most popular tools. I initially thought I’d only write one post, but it became quite long so quickly that I realized I’d need to divide it up.

As I post new entries, I’ll edit this post to add links here.

(Edit – Here is the first entry, stay tuned for more! Citation Management 101 – Zotero)


I’ll write these posts from two perspectives: first, as a student myself; second, as someone in the LIS field. I aim to synthesize these perspectives into something that will be useful for both my fellow students and LIS peers. Readers may want to skip or skim parts that are less relevant to their interests – I promise not to be offended!

This series will attempt to tackle each resource in an introductory, 101 capacity. As such I will primarily discuss features for basic rather than advanced users. I’ve chosen to do this for two reasons.

Firstly, I am new to each of these tools, and this essentially makes me a basic user of each. I do hope to use each of these programs in a more in-depth way with my assignments in the upcoming semester in order to get a better feel for them, at which time I will be able to provide more in-depth discussion, but at this time I don’t think I can offer a fair or objective in-depth assessment.

And second, I expect that realistically most users are likely to only use basic features. My suspicion is that most students will prefer something that is easy to learn in the beginning, and may be willing to learn more advanced aspects of their chosen tools later in the game. If I’m correct, ease of use of basic features may be more important than functionality of the more advanced features.

I also won’t attempt instructions or tutorials due to space limitations; instead I will link to ones already online that I’ve found useful.


I want to start with a simple question – why use citation management tools?

This is a question I asked myself when I first learned of RefWorks during my undergraduate education. A librarian teaching research skills to my class explained that many students found RefWorks very useful and seemed to think highly of it, but she also admitted that some students had difficulty using it. After class, a few of my classmates told me that they had tried it and found that it hadn’t worked for them. By that point in my academic career I’d already learned to write out my own citations, and had developed techniques for organizing them. I didn’t see the point in taking the time to learn to use a tool which might not actually work when I could continue to write out citations accurately myself.

Fast forward to present day – I am now a busy graduate student, and the amount of writing I’ve needed to produce has greatly exceeded that which I needed to at the time. Furthermore, I often need to refer back to the same important works for multiple assignments and classes. Suddenly, citation management is seeming more and more like a good idea. For those working on a thesis or a dissertation, I imagine citation tools would be invaluable.
Additionally, my experience is that most students find citations to be one of the less interesting parts of essay writing, and for some they are particularly challenging; these students could certainly benefit from a good citation management tool regardless of what level of education they are pursuing.


So what’s out there?

Some basic research uncovers mountains of tools. (Just for fun, I challenge you to check out this Wikipedia article and not become overwhelmed.) I plan to discuss those that are most popularly used in my neck of the woods, and welcome comments with suggestions.

Stay tuned for my first post about Zotero.


Do you use a citation management tool? Why or why not? Leave a comment and tell me about it.