Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Zotero: The best notetaking / bookmarking hybrid you’re not using

image I use Delicious as for public bookmarking and sharing, because it works great with my Tumblr blog, FriendFeed, and Facebook. When it comes to personal reference and easy, social publishing, Delicious is where it’s at. But in my job as a lawyer and researcher, I need something more powerful—and more private.

Until a few months ago, I had been using the Scrapbook Firefox extension as my workplace personal assistant. Scrapbook captures links, snippets, and full Web pages to a private, searchable, client-side notebook. It also allows you to edit and highlight your saved Web pages. The one drawback with Scrapbook is that it doesn’t sync with my two computers at home; my notes are trapped at work.

Enter Zotero Sync Preview. It does pretty much everything Scrapbook does (without some of Scrapbook’s deep link features), but it also syncs across computers and platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux) using either Zotero’s server or your own. If that were all Zotero did, it would be awfully amazing. But Zotero is the most full-featured Web research tool you get at any price, and it’s free. To get a feel for what Zotero can do, watch this video.  Trust me, it’s worth six minutes of your time.

You might be thinking, “This tool seems like it’s built for academic researchers. I don’t need a tool that organizes, automates, and exports bibliographies and citations.” Neither do I. Don’t let Zotero’s academic focus scare you away from its amazing feature set. It’s not just for liberal-arts majors and scholars.

I first came across Zotero in law school, and although I was impressed with its ability to grab bibliographic data from sources like JSTOR and Lexis-Nexis, I now rely more on Zotero’s meat and potatoes features:

  • Make local copies of web pages, and add your own highlights and annotations
  • Sync your notes, items, and links across computers using Zotero’s servers or your own.
  • Organize your stuff using both folders and tags. You can place items into more than one folder, and even identify related items within a folder.
  • Save attachments, such as PDFs, and sync them (must have your own server to sync attachments).
  • Automatically grab metadata from sites like the New York Times, Blogger, and Amazon, in addition to traditional academic databases.
  • Export items in your library or specific folders to a number of other formats.
  • Customize column views and sort your saved items.
  • Set custom keyboard shortcuts.
  • Extend Zotero with plugins and 1,100 bibliographic citation styles (if you’re into that kind of thing).

imageAnd that’s really just scratching the surface. Recently Zotero released a new online viewer for Sync users that store their bookmarks and items on Zotero’s servers. The viewer is painfully simple right now, but that’s perfect for iPhone users who want mobile access to their research (yes, there’s a customized iPhone view). 

It’s obvious I love Zotero, and I chose it as my workplace bookmarker for it’s robust feature set and killer sync capabilities, as well as its emphasis on private research. But I do have a few caveats.

First, this is not going to replace Delicious or Diigo as your social bookmarking tool. Nor will import items from those services. Zotero is best understood as a powerful, but supplemental tool for focused (not necessarily academic) research.

Second, Zotero is more complicated than your average Firefox add-on. But they’ve got a Web site with documentation and forums for users who are dedicated to unlocking its full potential. On the other hand, I’m using about 40-50% of the available feature set, and without trying too hard it’s already better than anything similar I’ve tried. However, if Zotero is too much for you, I evaluated Iterasi as a workplace bookmarking tool, and it’s an excellent, more traditional bookmarking alternative. That, of course, is a separate post that hasn’t been written yet.

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