Zotero: Your Personal Research Assistant

Zotero is a cloud-based service that automates and documents much of your research on the web. Did you find a web page about an ancestor? Or how about a page that describes the town in which your ancestors lived? How about creating a “To-Do List” for future research tasks? Do you need to create a bibliography for the article you are writing? Zotero can do all that and much more. In fact, Zotero is a FREE, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share research.

NOTE: I’ll describe the differences between the free version and the paid storage options later.

Zotero is a project of the Corporation for Digital Scholarship and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. It was initially funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. With credentials like that, you know the product is not some fly-by-night service created by a single individual in his or her garage!

Zotero Storage synchronizes PDFs, images, web snapshots, and files among all your computers, allows you to share your Zotero attachments in group libraries, and makes them available through the zotero.org website. The program bears a strong resemblance to both Evernote and to OneNote except that it is optimized for research tasks, not for general-purpose note-taking. The program works on Windows, Macintosh, Linux, or from a web browser (although the web browser version has somewhat limited functionality). Unfortunately, there is no version for Android, Apple iOS, or Chromebooks.

Zotero helps you organize your research any way you want. You can sort items into collections and tag them with keywords. Or create saved searches that automatically fill with relevant materials as you work. It also creates references and bibliographies for any text editor, and it works directly inside Microsoft Word and also with LibreOffice. With support for over 8,000 citation styles, you can format your work to match any style guide or publication.

Zotero operates by downloading and installing a small “app” into your computer. The app provides a very friendly user interface, and it communicates with Zotero’s servers in a secure and private storage service in the cloud. However, all data is stored in the cloud. As a result, you can access your data from multiple computers. For example, you can access your content from your desktop system while at home and from your laptop when in a library or on a research trip as well as from a “borrowed” computer at school or in an Internet cafe. Zotero can optionally synchronize your data across devices, keeping your notes, files, and bibliographic records seamlessly up to date.

The fact that the data is stored online in the cloud not only makes it easy for you to access the data from any location that has an Internet connection but also allows for optionally sharing bits and pieces with other researchers. I can see this last feature as being very popular amongst relatives who are working together on a family history project. Zotero lets you freely collaborate with fellow researchers, share with your relatives, or distribute class materials to your students. All items may (optionally) be shared on the Zotero web site or in email messages or in Google Docs. With no restrictions on membership, you can share your Zotero library in public or in private.

Zotero also has word processor plug-ins that will tightly integrate it with Microsoft Word or with LibreOffice. If you have the Zotero Connector extension installed in your web browser, Zotero will automatically find bibliographic information on the web pages you visit. The word processor plug-ins will generate bibliographies as well as in-text citations and footnotes. These are dynamic bibliographies: when you insert a new in-text citation in a manuscript, the bibliography will be automatically updated to include the cited item. Correct the title of an item in your Zotero library, and with a click of a button the change will be incorporated in all of your documents.

With Zotero, you can create an item from any webpage by clicking the save button in the browser toolbar. You can save all or only part of a webpage. In addition, you can add complete files, including PDF files. Of course, it is always possible to add or update entries by hand.

The Zotero service also has a feature called Feeds that allow you to subscribe to RSS updates from a journal, website, publisher, institution, research group, or other source and quickly find new articles or works. (See my earlier article, RSS Feeds Explained, at https://blog.eogn.com/2014/05/06/rss-feeds-explained for an explanation of RSS.) If you find an item in a publication’s feed that you want to save and read further, you can add it to your Zotero library with the click of a button.

The Zotero software is available FREE of charge, and that includes up to 300 megabytes of storage space on Zotero’s servers. For extra fees, you can obtain much more storage space:

2 gigabytes $20/year (equal to $1.67 per month)
6 gigabytes $60/year (equal to $5 per month)
Unlimited $120/year (equal to $10 per month)

In addition to individual storage subscriptions, Zotero also offers storage plans for labs and institutions. See https://www.zotero.org/storage/institutions for the details about institutional accounts.

Is Zotero a good choice for everyone? Probably not. After all, it is heavy duty service. It may be a bit overwhelming for the casual user. However, if you are awash in source citations and notes collected from all sorts of places, and also need help with citations and bibliographies, Zotero may become your best friend.

This article only scratches the service of Zotero’s many available features. You can learn much more on the Zotero web site at: https://www.zotero.org.

My thanks to newsletter reader John McGing for the suggestion to check out Zotero.


This looks cool – but don’t see if ” With support for over 8,000 citation styles” would include citation styles that are the standard for genealogy.


A question for anyone who has used this site. When I find something on-line that’s important to me I download it if I can or print the web page into a PDF or take a screen shot. That way if the site in question goes away (as they tend to do) I still have the source material. Does Zotero retain copies of materials you find on the web, or just links to it? Not necessarily copies of web pages, but copies of PDFs or image files, for example.


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