ProfHacker 101: Getting started with Zotero

Here at ProfHacker, we’ve written quite a bit about organization. In addition to course materials and materials for our dossiers, we need to keep good track of our research materials and notes. A number of commercial tools exist for this purpose. EndNote is probably the best known of these tools, and is available in both Windows and Mac versions. Windows users might also choose ProCite, and Mac users have Sente and Bookends available to them. RefWorks is an online alternative.

I’ve had some experience with EndNote and Sente, and both work as advertised; others will have to chime in on the other options (and I’m sure there are tools I haven’t mentioned). A while back, though, I switched to exclusive use of Zotero.

Why? For a number of reasons:

  1. It’s cross-platform.
  2. It’s free, so I can recommend it to students without feeling the least bit guilty. (The other tools I’ve mentioned range from reasonable–with a student discount–to downright pricey.)
  3. In my experience, it works as well as any of the paid options.
  4. It makes the sharing of resources incredibly easy.

I’ll come back to that last point in Part 2 of this two-part series. For now, I’d like to show you how to get started with Zotero.

First, go to Zotero’s homepage. Check out the video that’s on the front page, and you’ll see just how powerful a reference manager Zotero is.


If you’re intrigued enough to try it, be sure you have the FireFox browser installed (if you don’t, you can get it from Mozilla).


Then, go back to the Zotero homepage, and install the FireFox extension. The 2.0 beta has some very nice features (including synchronization), and I highly recommend it. Don’t be afraid of the “beta” label. I’ve been using it for months, and in my experience it’s been very stable.

FireFox may prevent the extension from installing the first time you click on it. If that happens, just click the “allow” button at the top right.

That will bring up a dialog box. When the extension is ready to install, just click on the “install” button (it’s grayed out in this image). FireFox will then give you an option to restart.
When it restarts, you’ll have a “zotero” button in the lower right corner of your browser, as in the image below:

Clicking on that button will open the Zotero window.

Above you see a small portion of my library.

Once you’ve added some references to your library and installed whatever word processor plugin you need, you’re ready to start using Zotero in conjunction with your wordprocessor. There are too many options for me to cover here, but you can find detailed instructions at Zotero’s page on installing word processor plugins.


Integration with your word processor will look a little bit different depending on your computing platform and your wordprocessor of choice. The two examples to the left are both Microsoft Word. In Word for Mac 2008, you’ll find Zotero under the AppleScript menu, as in the top image. In Word for Windows 2007, you’ll find it under the Add-Ins ribbon. Bringing up that ribbon will show that a new set of Zotero icons has appeared in the toolbar, as in the lower image.

Zotero also works with OpenOffice, so Linux users are in luck.

In next week’s post I’ll talk about how to automagically sync your Zotero library across multiple computers, and how to use group libraries. In the meantime, observations and comments about Zotero are welcome. If you’ve used it, what are your impressions? How does it stack up against other reference managers you’ve used?

The image at the top of this post was created by Flickr user karindalziel and carries a Creative Commons license.

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