Zotero (geek post)

For years, I’ve wished that there was a way I could keep track of all the shit I read that I think I want to write about some day. I read. A lot. Non-fiction, mostly, but fiction too. Magazines, books, web sites, you name it. And for quite a while now, I’ve had the sense that my ability to keep track of all the things I want to write about one day was far less than it should be.

This is what, up until a week ago, I did when I stumbled across a passage or a thought that I wanted to “bookmark,” to be sure I didn’t lose: I snapped a picture of it with my phone. Sometimes, I would send it to Evernote. Sometimes, to Google Drive. But the truth is, while I use both of those apps for some things regularly, neither was a good solution to this particular problem. So stuff just accumulated in each of those three places – in my phone (alongside pictures of my family, and the odd picture of my chest or cock that I haven’t deleted), in Evernote, and in Google Drive. But the passages I liked just languished there.

Here’s an example of two such photos:


In my “Evernote” account, I noted, “Attraction + Obstacles = Excitement,” and added “Morin, 1995, 49-50.”

Now, if you’ve read every post here, you’ll remember that somehow, this informed a post that I wrote in October of 2012.

But this way of keeping track of interesting passages and things I’ve read has been deeply sub-optimal. In just about every way.

I won’t enumerate the ways. But rather, I’ll just note this: I do it spottily. I often mean to note things, to record them in Evernote. And I have dozens of photos of text just sitting in my phone. Photos of web pages, of pdfs, of books. And I look at them now, and have no idea why I snapped half of them. Were they for posts here? For posts on one of my other blogs? For inclusion in a book? In a paper? In a letter? My journal?

I just don’t know.

Two years ago, I had the idea that there must be a product that would help me with this problem. At the time, I tried a bunch of different products. I tried Bibtex, Mendeley, Zotero, EndNote, and others. As I recall, Mendeley was the one that came closest to being appealing to me at the time. But it fell short. I don’t remember how.

A couple of days ago, for reasons that aren’t important here, I found myself confronted with the need to organize several dozen PDFs of academic articles – as well as my reactions to them. And I went hunting, once again, for a good way to do this.

And I stumbled, once more, on Zotero.

Zotero has improved a LOT since the last time I looked at it. When I first looked at it, it was simply an add-on to Firefox. For years, I loved Firefox. But then along came Chrome, and I was sold almost right away – simply because of its start-up time, at first. But as Chrome developed, it got better and better, and now I’m like the pig vs. the chicken – I’m commited, not just involved.

If you didn’t use Firefox (I didn’t), Zotero was useless. My browser was far more important to me than my “reference manager.”

But Zotero’s not useless to me any more.

The other day, I learned that Zotero has a standalone program that syncs with its web app – and a “connector” that works pretty close to perfectly with Chrome (not perfectly, but that’s for another day).

So I downloaded Zotero, imported my couple dozen PDFs, and was off to the races.

FUCK it’s cool.

It does the following things almost effortlessly: it lets you track your notes associated with any given item – a book, article, document, what have you. It records bibliographic/URL information. It lets you use “collections” and “tags,” so items can be in multiple places at once. And so on, and so on, and so on. (AND, it’s fun to use.)


You won’t necessarily know it, but if you like my writing, you will see benefits here very soon, I promise you.


  1. It may inform your reading of this post to know that I was just slightly buzzed when writing it.

    I’m rarely drunk, but I skipped lunch today, didn’t sleep great last night, and had two glasses of Scotch (rather than my customary one) prior to writing this. And, I didn’t proofread.

  2. Hahaha! I came over to visit because this post reminds me of exactly what I do…take pictures on my phone, make notes on my phone, then can not precisely remember the intent of said picture, text, or note. Sometimes. I’m also responding, at length, because I’ve had a few glasses of wine, on a likewise empty stomach, which I don’t ordinarily do on a Tuesday, and I may have noticed a slight “difference” in the writing. I should go back and make this comment an entire run on sentence. Get a good night sleep!

  3. I also tend to take pictures with my phone, to make notes. Except I always forget to write whatever it was down later on, and well, it’s messy 🙂
    But I’m not buzzed at all right now, and whatever you wrote here is way too geeky for me 😉

  4. I have the habit of taking notes of things that I like after reading them, I accumulate lots of them, but so far didn’t go back to refer to them. Sometimes don’t know why I must store and keep so much stuff!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.