Zotero: A Serious Online Research Tool

For years, I’ve been looking for a serious online research tool that would let me not just add to the ratnest of bookmarks and “favorites” I have, but really control, annotate, correlate, tag and source online material. Last week, as I was gearing up to join WWD, I found an awesomely deep, free, open source and innovative tool in the form of a super-stable FireFox 2.0 extension: Zotero.

Zotero is a brainchild of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, well funded thanks to several grants, including $1.2 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The money shows – Zotero is as slick as any commercial product, the documentation is deep and tasty with lots of nicely done screencasts and the developer info is some of the best Open Source project docs I’ve seen. Zotero has already gotten rave reviews in the academic community, with now 600,000 active users.


“How is Zotero better than bookmarks?” said Dan Cohen, Director of the Center for History and New Media. “There’s a bunch of things. First of all you can actually take snapshots of the web pages you bookmark. If they disappear in the future, you’ll have that snapshot. The other thing is, especially for people doing research, is that you can then take any items that you grab whether they are citations or whole articles and move them to other places, like Google Docs.”

While designed to make academic citations a one click snap, Zotero supports non-academic web workers:

  • Works with web sites, pdfs, files, images – basically anything on the web.
  • Also works with files on your PC, Mac or Linux box, including docs, photos and sound files.
  • An very clean pop up, use-and-put-away interface within Firefox.
  • Excellent support for tagging and notetaking.
  • One click importing of any public image on Flickr with its meta data.
  • A growing list of academic and mainstream (New York Times, The Economist, The Australian, Amazon) info sources that Zotero can parse and then extract citation data.
  • Once you grab a page, you can highlight text, add annotations, link to related pages or attach files to your heart’s content.
  • Integrates with OpenOffice, NeoOffice and Microsoft Word.
  • Drag and drop export to web worker tools like Google Docs.
  • Available in 24 languages so far, another 24 localizations in progress.

One of the coolest Zotero features is being able to take one of your collections and with one click, map it to a timeline display by either the date you added items, or the date those items were published or edited on the web. Timelines are hard to put into words – here’s one online example and then there’s the 45-foot long physical timeline display at the heart of the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms in London. Basically, timelines give you control of years of information, not just piles of bookmarks, letting you rocket backward and forward in your research project or online life.

While Version 1.0 was released just this past Oct. 31st, the 6 person core development team with the motto, “Research, not re-search” has some ambitious plans for this year:

  • Joining forces with the Internet Archive to create a one-click, del.icio.us-like “Zotero Commons”.
  • Supporting instant mashups with Google Maps and Google Earth.
  • Recommendation engine and RSS feeds.
  • Remote library backup and access.
  • A Zotero Server so collections can be shared either in an organization or online.

Zotero works with Firefox 2.0 and up, running on Windows, Mac or Linux operating systems.

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