A good reference manager can be an incredibly helpful tool in your research. Many different options are available, but you should at least seriously consider Zotero.
Zotero launched its first public beta in the fall of 2006 as a Firefox extension.
I stumbled upon Zotero and started using it in the fall of 2007, thanks to some helpful input from Westminster Seminary’s writing center.
Zotero was useful then, but in the years since, ongoing development has made it an even more robust and helpful research tool.
Over the years, I’ve blogged about Zotero a good deal. But a reader recently asked if I recommended it, and I realized it might be useful to put a few reasons behind my hearty “yes.”
1. Zotero is free.
Zotero happens to be free as in zero cost to end users (e.g., “free books”).
But it’s also free as in Zotero doesn’t lock you into a proprietary system that limits what you can do with your own data (e.g., “free speech”):
Zotero has always guaranteed users complete access to their own data, but open source [= free as in “free speech”] means you don’t need to take our word for it. If the organization that runs Zotero disappeared tomorrow, or if we made a decision that didn’t put users’ interests first, others would be free to take Zotero’s source code and continue to maintain and improve it. (Why Zotero?)
These two types of freedom mean that Zotero has a low barrier to entry. You can give it a try and then get your data back out if you decide Zotero doesn’t work (or stops working) for you for whatever reason.
2. Zotero supports SBL, Chicago, and many other styles.
When you download Zotero, it comes with support for Chicago style built in.
Adding support for SBL style is as easy as installing the style from the repository.
But Zotero also has support for other biblical studies styles like those from Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Currents in Biblical Research, and Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche.
So even if you need something a bit different from these, you can likely get close enough to make pretty minimal the manual tweaks necessary at the end of your editing to get things just right.
3. Zotero is actively developed and provides exceptional help in the forums.
The Zotero forums are fabulous places to search for help on technical issues that you can’t find guidance about in the regular documentation.
When I come upon something I can’t get right, I routinely find someone has asked a similar question that’s helpful in clarifying what I need to do differently.
Even when I can’t immediately find what I’m looking for in the forums though, very seldom have I posted another question and not pretty promptly gotten a helpful response.
(Of course, when posting questions, you do have to try to state the issue as clearly and completely as possible. “I can’t get Zotero to work” isn’t going to be a great way of helping others in the forum help you with your issue.)
Going along with all of this, Zotero’s developers are active in the forums as well. In several cases, they’ve identified a question I’ve posted as related to a bug or need for additional nuance in the software or SBL style.
And sure enough, a subsequent release of Zotero or the SBL style has cleared up the issue.
4. Zotero integrates with Microsoft Word—and LibreOffice Writer.
Remember when I mentioned “free books” and “free speech” above?
Well, part of me would really like to use LibreOffice Writer rather than Microsoft Word for exactly this reason.
But there are several reasons—for another post—that I continue using Word for now. And Zotero integrates very nicely with Word.
As a further plus, if I ever decide to start using Writer instead—or if you use Writer rather than Word—Zotero supports Writer just as well.
5. You can “set it and forget it.”
Especially with SBL style, it takes some time to learn the nuances of how to put information into Zotero so that you can get the proper output.
But the nice thing is that, once you’ve got a book or article input properly, you don’t have to worry about re-searching for how to compose that citation. You can simply research and write and let Zotero handle the jots and tittles of the citations.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can offload deep knowledge of SBL style to Zotero or any other platform. You still have to know what you need out of the software so that you can meet your style requirements.
But it does mean that you can focus on noticing and fixing anything that’s amiss. You don’t need to bother with everything that goes right—which the vast majority usually does.
6. Zotero allows you to store files with citation records.
Let’s say you add a journal article to your database. But you have a PDF copy of the article as well.
Where do you keep that copy? You can attach that PDF directly to the citation and so save everything in one place.
Zotero also provides some cloud storage so that you can sync a minimal number of files among multiple PCs.
But it’s also pretty straight forward to extend this storage by one method or another. In some cases, you may even be able to do so for no additional cost to you.
A student recently observed that citation managers don’t substitute for knowing SBL or whatever other style well. But they can take a lot of the grunt work out of following those styles.
That sounds about right. Following a given style guide is a good and necessary part of what writing involves in biblical studies.
But then, none of us got into biblical studies so that we could follow the SBL Handbook of Style. 🙂
So it makes sense to consider how you can address your style requirements more efficiently and free yourself up to do the reading, research, and writing that only you can do.
And Zotero is an excellent option for a tool to help you do just this.
Do you use Zotero? If so, what other reasons do you have for using it?
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