I made a mistake when researching and writing my first book Lonesome George. I didn’t keep a detailed record of sources as I went along. If you’re writing non-fiction, this is very silly. I think perhaps I was overcome by the excitement of writing and neglected to plan. What it meant was several troubling days of trying to remember where I got all my facts from and then attempting to revisit them to double-check.
This time, I’ve done things differently. I used Endnote for my doctorate and liked it. I would have used it again had I been able to afford the hefty cost of the software. So I looked for a Freeware alternative and found one in the shape of Zotero. I’m not sure what the latest versions of Endnote and other reference managers are capable of these days, but Zotero is seriously impressive.
It works within the Firefox web-browser. So first, I had to switch over from Internet Explorer. Firefox has lots of great features of its own and it’s also one of the names of the lesser panda, which makes me happy. Having the application within a browser is brilliant. “Zotero is a free, easy-to-use Firefox extension to help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources. It lives right where you do your work—in the web browser itself,” the website explains. There is so much guff on the web that it’s terrific to have found an application with which it is easy to record exactly where I got which fact from.
It opens not as a web-page like Connotea but as a mini window (which you can maximise if you want) within the web page you’re browsing. This makes it really simple to pull data from the web – often just a single click of the mouse – and then add notes to the reference without toggling between different pages or applications. You can take snapshots of web pages so can easily keep track of photos. It’s a cinch to add books. You just key in the ISBN and all the details are sucked from the web. Registering with Zotero gives you an online master that’s regularly synchronised. This means you have a backup but crucially also allows you to work from different computers without losing track of the definitive version of your database. Zotero’s designers have made a conscious decision to keep things simple, so you’re not bamboozled by dozens of tabs with long lists of features you’ll never hope to understand. There are about six buttons and they provide all the features I need. I had a query that I plugged into the Zotero forum and it was answered immediately.
I feel in control of my sources – a sentence that might not be out of place in a shampoo ad. But for a subject like pandas, where I need to keep track of books, journal articles, radio interviews, TV broadcasts, artwork, popular news stories, it is perfect.