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.


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