Recipient: Recipient: George Mason University, Fairfax, VA

Grant: 2005 National Leadership Grant




Trevor Owens
Zotero Technology Evangelist


Ask a roomful of researchers to name the most tedious aspect of their work and managing bibliographies will be at the top of the list. Researchers from the Center for History and New Media of George Mason University, funded in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), have all but solved this problem with Zotero software. The easy-to-use and powerful research tool helps researchers, librarians, and others gather, organize, and analyze sources (citations, full texts, web pages, images, and other objects), and share results with others in a variety of ways.

Trevor Owens, Zotero’s self-described technology evangelist, described why library and museum professionals should be excited about the new software.

Q: How are libraries and museums using Zotero right now?

A: The most obvious use of Zotero for libraries is as a tool for researchers, students, and educators to make better use of their collections. At this point on nearly a weekly basis, libraries seek us out, asking for help to tweak their OPAC (Online Public Access Catalog) to work a little more seamlessly with Zotero. Some libraries like the Copac Academic & National Library Catalogue have added additional metadata to their records to make their collections compatible. So, first and foremost, libraries are recognizing the value of this tool to make their content more accessible for their users.

Aside from this use, some librarians are using Zotero to grab metadata for acquisitions. Instead of reentering information it is possible to just grab and edit information already available through other services and export it in a host of metadata formats allowing librarians to take the information to other tools and systems they use for cataloging.

I know of a few individuals in museums and libraries who are working on cataloging smaller collections who intend to use Zotero as their catalog system. When we move into Zotero's 2.0 stage, other users will be able to share bibliographic information through our server, and join groups around their interests. These individuals are planning on using these groups as archives for these smaller collections.

Q: You mentioned EndNote and RefWorks and some other software programs used by researchers. How did Zotero take what was already possible and improve upon it?

A: There are a few things about Zotero that make it unique in the world of reference management tools. Unlike previous projects, Zotero has been built by practicing researchers and teachers. The historians in charge of Zotero developed it in response to many of their frustrations with previous tools. Because of their position as engaged researchers and teachers, they were able to build a tool that fits much more organically into the research process.

Aside from this, Zotero is an attempt to make reference management easier. While the proliferation of research tools and bibliographic management systems has changed how many scholars work, the majority of scholars in many fields still use hand written note-cards. Ease of use was a central feature for our developers from the first day and by borrowing the iTunes style interface and drag and drop functionality, our tool becomes very intuitive.

Another unique feature for Zotero is its location. Because Zotero 'lives' in your browser it is already where you are online. Previous software require you move into other tools to do your research. This also allows us to do a series of unique functions for web research. By creating Zotero items from Web pages researchers and students can archive and annotate things unique to the web (blogs, forum discussions etc.) and then cite those web resources in reliable ways.

Q: Do you have any comments regarding the implications of Zotero? For example, will it make collaborations easier?

A: Zotero already relieves libraries and museums of the need to build personal collection tools for their users and greatly leverages the substantial investment they have already made in digitizing collection materials. Zotero will make collaboration easier.

Researchers will be able to collaborate on individual projects and they will also be able to benefit from the publicly available research of other individuals. This will have major ramifications for those at the long tail of scholarship. Through groups, these scholars will be able to keep abreast of developments in both the macro fields and disciplines they work in and their micro fields.

Q: Other than being an open source browser, why was Firefox the right choice for Zotero?

A: First and foremost Firefox was the way to go because they allow extensions to access much more of the program than any other browser. Firefox’s extensibility (implementation that allows for future growth) is in fact one of the catalysts for the project. Aside from this, Firefox is more secure and is on the rise, rapidly gaining ground on Internet Explorer. It is also much easier to localize the tool in different languages (We currently support 14 different languages)

Q: What are "off-brand" uses of Zotero? I know you mentioned its use by cooks who use for compiling recipes.

A: You can grab recipes, organize them through your folders, tag them, search them etc. It is really a lot of fun. Aside from Zotero's ability to archive pages, it works great for keeping track of web receipts for everything from books to plane tickets. (I can't tell you how many times it has saved me by archiving all my confirmation numbers when I need to sort something out with an airline)

While I wouldn't call some of these other examples ‘off brand’ we have also gotten a lot of traction in other professions where research is crucial. Several law bloggers have jumped on Zotero as a great way to keep track of legal information and a few weeks ago one of our users contributed several translators for patent material, Supreme Court decisions, and other legal records. A month or two ago a home business blogger raved about using Zotero to keep track of all sorts of web information related to her business. You might consider checking out some of our rave reviews archived at

Q: How many Zotero users do you have and is its popularity growing?

A: It is hard to track our user-base in absolute terms but every indicator we can track shows that we have had very rapid growth. Every time a user starts up Firefox, Zotero checks back to see if there are any new translators, last month we had 146,753 unique IP addresses check in for new translators. That gives a rough sketch of how many users we have.

Q: How many people worked on the extension?

A: Zotero has been in the works for several years now. I believe it goes back to at least 2004. The project directors Dan Cohen, Josh Greenberg and Sean Takats have worked with our development team Dan Stillman, Simon Kornblith and David Norton to build the tool. The six of them represent the primary development team. This summer we have 3 interns and another developer working on the project as well.

National Leadership Grants for Libraries