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How to use Zotero to manage a bibliography

So, we all know that we have to cite sources, right? Citing is how we show our readers where we get our information and where to find out more about the topic. But the whole process of managing a bibliography is a lot of work. It's easy to let it slide. Reading new ideas and writing a new draft is much more fun than typing out a Works Cited list, not to mention changing it whenever you add or remove sources. And then there's proofreading it.

There are many software packages which automate the technical side of library research. They create a database of your sources and they link that information to your draft so you never have to type anything more than once. My favorite of these packages is 100% free and it works in the Firefox browser as a plug-in. It saves you some typing by grabbing the bibliographic details on the web page you're browsing. It can even download the PDF of journal articles if it is available. It's called Zotero and it's available for download at http://zotero.org. This is a brief nontechnical overview of using Zotero to record sources you've found, edit their citation information, and then using another plugin in your word processor, automatically creating and updating in-text citations and a bibliography.

Step 1: Download and install the Firefox plugin

Go to http://zotero.org and download the plugin. This is a mostly automatic process, much like other Firefox extensions. This creates a menu item under Tools. When open, it adds an additional panel on your browser window. This is how you view, organize and edit your database of sources.

Step 2: Collect sources using the Address Bar icon

The neat thing about Zotero is that you can mainly use it indirectly, as part of the process of browsing web pages. Say you are searching for an article by Roy Wagner entitled “Analogic Kinship: A Daribi Example” (Wagner 1977). You might go to JSTOR (http://jstor.org) and search for this by the title. When you land on the entry page of this citation, you'll see a small 'paper' icon on the right of the browser address bar. Click on this and the item will be saved as a source in your Zotero database. When browsing an individual entry page in an academic index or repository, the article PDF will also be downloaded. You need to be on the campus network or connecting via a proxy to get the PDFs.

There is a quirk with JSTOR and Zotero. You must click on 'View PDF' near the top of the browser page (under 'Tools') and in the pop-up bubble, click the link that says 'Accept the JSTOR terms and conditions and…'. This opens a new window and begins to download the PDF. You can close this window. Now Zotero can download the PDF and store in its database with the citation information. Most other indexes of journal articles allow Zotero to grab everything without any intervention. Each index provider sets things up differently and Zotero needs to try different things for each one, so be aware that one index will not work the same as another.

You do need to double-check Zotero's work. Open the Zotero interface (In Firefox, Tools > Zotero; or click the 'Z' icon on the main tool bar). In the main (center) window, you'll see a list of entries in the main Zotero library. Roy Wagner's article is the most recent addition, so it is on top. Select it. The right window displays the details of this record. Notice that the first piece of information is “Item type,” and it is set to “Journal article.” Each type of item—books, newspaper articles, chapters in an edited collection, and journal articles—has its own information fields associated with it that is necessary for identifying and citing an item as a source. You'll see that Zotero has automatically identified the information on the JSTOR page as being an individual entry for a journal article, and so it invites you to save it with a 'Journal article' icon (a little paper with lines on it). Now try looking up a book in the Fisher library catalog and saving it to the Zotero database. Try it with Amazon.com too.

Step 3: Adding and editing individual entries

As you work with Zotero, you'll notice that it can identify many different types of sources on web pages and will offer to save them based on what it thinks they are. It's not always right. Also, based on how the web page is written, Zotero can miss or mistake information about the source. Library catalogs remain a tricky problem for it. It can capture the main details for citing a book, but it may not get everything or put it in the right place. It is good to know how to edit the individual fields. You do this by selecting a record in the main Zotero window, and then clicking on individual fields in the right window and changing the information. To create a new item—for those times when you find a book or source that isn't available online—you click the green circle-plus icon over the main Zotero window, and select the “Item Type” you are working with. The main types of items we deal with in academic research are journal articles, books, and chapters of edited collections. The last one is called a “book section” in Zotero. Notice that it has separate entries for the book title and the book section, as well as the page range for the chapter. You can add a field for the collection editor(s) by first adding the author's name, and then clicking the 'plus' button on the right of the name. This adds a new field for a co-author, but you can click on 'Author' to reveal an option menu and change it to editor. You can also add co-authors and co-editors by repeating this.

Besides PDFs you can also store notes as attachments to item records. All of your reading and ideas can be stored in one place. If you sign up for a zotero.org account, you can also sync your database with other computers, so it's always backed up. Changes or new information can be added once and then updated everywhere it is linked, including in your draft.

Step 4: Inserting citations into a document

Once you've installed Zotero in Firefox, you can also add an 'add-in' (sometimes called a 'plug-in' or 'extension') to Microsoft Word, OpenOffice or LibreOffice. Open the Zotero management frame in Firefox (Tools > Zotero, or Ctrl+Shift+Z). Click the gear icon in the toolbar and choose 'Preferences…'. In this dialog window, choose 'Cite'. On this pane, there should be a button for installing either a plug-in for Word or for OpenOffice and LibreOffice (two free, open-source productivity suites). For more guidance, see the Zotero web site (Takats et al. 2014). Follow the instructions for finalizing the set-up in your word processor. You should now have a new toolbar you can place in the window (View > Toolbars > Zotero). This provides several buttons that let you insert and edit citations and a bibliography.

First, click the button for Set Document Preferences (a gear and Z). Choose your preferred bibliographic style. I use the author-date style in the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, sometimes called the “Chicago B” style (University of Chicago Press 2010). Well, to be honest, now that I use Zotero, I don't really care which style I use, since if I need to change between APA or MLA or whatever, I can just click Zotero's Set Document Preferences button and choose one of the style from the menu here. The database then formats its stored information in the right way, and as long as I've checked to make sure that everything is complete and correct in the database entries, I know it will come out correctly in the document.

As you type, you can insert an in-text citation by clicking the Insert Citation button (an 'r' with a Z). This presents you with a search field. You can search your database by author or any word in that title and Zotero will give you autocompleted suggestions to choose from. So if you don't remember the author of that paper about analogies of kinship, but you remember that it was about the Daribi people of PNG, you could just type 'Daribi' in this box and get a list of all the sources that have this word somewhere in the entry. You click on the suggested result to confirm it. It now sits in the search box in a blue bubble labeled “Wagner, 1977.” If you are quoting this paper, you can add the all-important page number by clicking this bubble and entering the page number in the dialog that appears. You can also use this dialog to fine-tune the parenthetical citation. For instance:

Wagner writes, “The range of potentially recognizable analogies existing among any set of human semiotic constructions is virtually limitless. Only a very small number of them is ever selected for the purposes of social construction.” (Wagner 1977, 639)

You can add more than one citation to the output if you want to cite more than one source for the same fact or idea. When you have added all the citations you want, and added all the page numbers or other information to them, you press enter, and the plug outputs a citation and inserts it into the document at the cursor. Depending on your options in the Set Document Preferences dialog, you can edit this citation as normal text, but it is better to put your cursor in the citation and click the Zotero button 'Edit Citation'. This brings back the citation dialog for you to continue adding and removing citations.

Step 5: Inserting a bibliography

So, say you have a complete draft and you're ready to print it out and revise it. You've added your citations already, and you want to add the bibliography (or works cited list) at the end. There's a Zotero button for this too, called 'Insert Bibliography' (a red list of lines). Write 'References' at the end of your document, insert a carriage return, and then click this button. If you've checked your database for completeness, then this bibliography will look pretty good already. You may notice at this stage that there's some missing information. For instance, you grabbed the bibliographic entry from Google Books for a book but it did not include the 'place' of the publisher. Don't just edit what's on the page now. Go back to the database and correct the entry. Then press the Zotero button 'Refresh' (arrows). Now the bibliography and the citations have been reformatted from the latest version of the database. It's really important to correct any errors in your citations and bibliography in your database, so that you can refresh and everything in your document will be updated. If you change the document and then later refresh the document from a new database – say you insert a new citation – then you'll lose the changes you made to the other entries in the document.

There's much more to Zotero, but hopefully this will be enough to get started. You should try to experiment a bit (backing up any work first!) to see how it works.


Now that you can automatically grab citations from things you find online and even download PDFs to a master database, you'll probably find a lot of online searching and reading much faster and way more convenient. You may run into another problem. I call it Zotero Syndrome. Sometimes when I'm doing research, and I find a source I'd like to read, I'll add it to my Zotero database, and then realize that there's no online version! And then I say, “Ugh, it's printed in a book! Made of paper! Do I really need to read this? It'd be so much easier to just sit here and keep Googling and doing online searches for more information.” If you find yourself afflicted by Zotero Syndrome, the only cure is to get up, stretch, go for a walk to the library, and find that book. When we get used to using new tools, sometimes they turn around and change us. Don't deprive yourself of the fun of going to the library and learning things from paper books, not to mention walking the aisles and serendipitously finding things you've never heard of (Bondeson 2004; Coad 2002; Venturi, Brown, and Izenour 1977). There's a whole lot of stuff that will never be scanned, but that doesn't mean it's not interesting.


Bondeson, Jan. 2004. The Two-Headed Boy, and Other Medical Marvels. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Coad, David. 2002. Gender Trouble Down Under: Australian Masculinities. Valenciennes: Presses Universitaires de Valenciennes.

Takats, Sean, Dan Stillman, Simon Kornblith, and Faolan Cheslack-Postava. 2014. “Word Processor Integration.” Zotero. Accessed June 23. https://www.zotero.org/support/word_processor_integration.

University of Chicago Press. 2010. The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Venturi, Robert, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. 1977. Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Wagner, Roy. 1977. “Analogic Kinship: A Daribi Example.” American Ethnologist 4 (4): 623–42.

the_quest/managing_bibliographies.txt · Last modified: 2021/06/29 02:27 by