Using Zotero

Intro: Zotero’s my new favorite research tool. Why? Because it’s a Rhizome. But what isn’t (nowadays)? No, seriously. It is a rhizome and it happens to be a rhizome of the most useful sort. Zotero helps to visualize the relations between ideas, images, and texts in a way that few other research tools allow. For those unfamiliar, Zotero’s a powerful citation management program, frequently used as an extension of Firefox (but also can be used as a standalone application) that makes possible multiple points of entry and useful exits from information you’ve assembled in your research. Moreover, and maybe most importantly, Zotero offers a degree of scholarly peace of mind by backing up all your citations and notes on their server automatically, courtesy of the Mellon, Alfred P. Sloan Foundations and others. You receive 100 MB of space free, but can move into the 1 GB tier for only $20/year. I’ve been using Zotero pretty extensively for about six months and have used only about 9% of my storage space.

While perhaps the best introduction to Zotero can be found on their website (http://www.zotero.org/support/quick_start_guide), I’ve set out as my task (complete with screenshots) to show how I use this incredible tool in my own early graduate research (#bravery) in hopes it may spark some ideas that might be helpful you all in your own respective scholarly practices.

How I Found Out About Zotero & How I Found Zotero Useful: I discovered Zotero last spring on the recommendation of my adviser–who’s a wonderful advocate for the absorption of digital technologies into Art History methods. I found downloading the program easy  (http://www.zotero.org/download/). After beginning to use Zotero, I quickly became impressed with how great it is to save even basic citations for later use–why I even refused to use EndNote as an undergrad, I don’t even know.

Zotero Main Screen Grab

I quickly became captivated by the usefulness of the “tag-function” as a means of exploring the interrelations between information. Indeed, in my case, this function allowed me to organize the flow of information between primary images, texts, and secondary source material in a really effective way. For instance, working on Blake and self-annihilation has generated certain challenges for me in navigating between where the idea comes up in Blake’s poetry, in the visual fields of the illuminated books, in other Blakean artistic media (his watercolors, his lithograph, etc.), its relation to period specific primary text materials, and more contemporary critical theory. Zotero allows me to see these phenomenon in relation to the ideas of scholars who have previously explored them, easily.

Quick & Dirty examples: For instance, hitting the tag “Self-Annihilation” allows me to visualize connections between the following range of texts, images, and tags I’ve created:

To the left, the blue tag indicates the primary idea I’m pursuing, while the remaining black tags indicate what other tags are related to the primary idea. To the right, Zotero displays what texts and images are tagged with the primary idea. As a second step, let’s say I’m interested in self-annihilation as it relates to Blake’s Enoch lithograph, specifically. To find new connections, I’d highlight both the tags “Self-Annihilation” and “Blake’s Enoch.”

The tag-function has allowed me to connect the lithograph to a diverse array of materials: two images I had tagged (but forgotten) as similar immediate objects of interest (“Christ Offers to Redeem Man” from Blake’s Butts Paradise Lost watercolor series and Jerusalem, pl. 41), a Hazlitt essay that I saw as exhibiting similarly self-annihilative concerns, and one of my favorite selections from Anti-Oedipus. Indeed, and also helpful, in this regard, is the ability to store copies of files–and namely images–within your personal Zotero database. With the way I use the interface, a simple click will load a stored image

(In the screen grab:) William Blake. “Christ Offers to Redeem Man” in Illustrations to Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (Butts Set), 1808. The William Blake Archive. Ed. Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. 7 November 2011 <http://www.blakearchive.org/>.

Conclusion: In the end, after using Zotero for the last six months, I can’t even imagine going back to paper-based research note taking. It will be interesting to see how these new technologies drive humanities research forward in the future, and what new and more complex connections might be forged in all our studies. I also recognize that I’m not the only NGSC member who uses Zotero, and would appreciate comments on what tips and tricks you all have for using the program in your own work.

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