In a world in which the Supreme Court doesn’t understand texting, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that there are historians out there who don’t understand notes programs. Nevertheless, I was still shocked when I asked two historians whose work I respect tremendously at different times in the last few weeks what notes program they use and got blank stares in return.
I wrote my dissertation (and by extension my first book) using note cards and Xerox copies. This was way I learned to do research as a high school debater and it worked fine getting me through grad school. While I sometimes had trouble finding quotations I remembered, since all my sources were in a finite set of boxes or the books that were clogging my carrel I always found what I needed eventually.
That’s why I was so intrigued with the idea of note-taking programs. In 2000, I got one called Papyrus, loaded it on my laptop and started typing research cards on the history of ice and refrigeration into it. Ten years later I have 2000 cards and my new laptop can’t even run the old operating system that Papyrus requires. [No laptop recycling yet for me!]
This summer, I’m finally going to start writing that manuscript in earnest, but in the course of writing three articles from that research I can’t tell you how much time I’ve saved by the ability to do keyword searches on those cards to find information that I knew was there somewhere even faster.
But now there’s Zotero, an add on that goes with the Firefox browser. I started adding new ice and refrigeration cards in Zotero only a few months ago as practice for my next project, but I’m already stunned by what I can do using this program. Here, take a look yourself [I think this video’s out of date now, but it still serves my purposes.]:
The folks at Zotero make a big deal about its web friendliness, and they should. You can download attachments from databases or the web or even take a screen shot. Nevertheless, you can still manually download information and group it with the bibliography cards describing the source from which it came (solving a problem I remember from my index card days). It’s also preset to allow entry of archival information.
What won my heart to Zotero though is the searchability of texts inside the notes or attachments. Using Papyrus, I was basically stuck finding things with keywords or a few other fields. Zotero works like Google in the sense that I can find everything by the word.
Yes, your research is going to be in the cloud, but you can download it onto your computer for safekeeping. Yes, it takes time to learn the ins and outs of the program (and I’ll be the first to admit that I still don’t have it all down). Nevertheless, considering the length of any book project, you’ll figure it out over time.
In fact, next semester, I’m going to start training my students to use Zotero. Here at my underfunded state university with a tiny library databases and Google Books are our most important resources, and I doubt anything could be better for managing that kind of information. No more writing down URLs. No more stacks of copies from newspaper databases. They can even start a new library for every research paper.
In short, if you aren’t using Zotero, your research is taking too long. And did I mention that Zotero is free?