Research Methodology using Zotero

Using Zotero to Manage the Research Process

The research process for a large paper or book on a historical topic involves the collection of an enormous amount of data. The researcher needs to organize that information in such a way that obscure items are easily found and complex relationships understood. As the digital age provides much more access, it also creates the challenge of information management. To more efficiently manage the research process, I am proposing a methodology to be used for small-scale projects, such as a thesis, conducted by an individual.

The proposed methodology applies the digital reference management tool Zotero[1] to help manage the research process. Assuming the reader is already familiar with the features of Zotero, I have outlined a systematic approach and am providing examples of some features of Zotero implemented in certain ways. This approach re-purposes the ‘Report’ item in Zotero, changing it from an item that was designed to document a source to one that records information on people, organization and events. The methodology exploits the Zotero feature to link sources to create relationships between sources, people, organizations and event. I will test and modify this methodology while researching my master’s thesis in 2014 and early 2015.

The basic steps

  1. Determine a filing system for physical files and books.
  2. Determine a naming system to indicate physical location of sources.
  3. Determine a keyword system for tagging sources.
  4. Determine a keyword system for tagging notes.
  5. Develop a library research form.
  6. In Zotero, create a new ‘Collection’ hierarchy for the project.
  7. Establish new meanings for Zotero metadata fields in ‘Report’ type items.
  8. Annotate and link Zotero sources to people, organizations, and events
  9. In Zotero, link people to other people to build kinship networks.
  10. Run Zotero reports to assist in the analysis and writing process.

Methodology Description

1. Determine a filing system for physical files and books.

While Zotero provides the ability to link to electronically stored files, it can also be used to indicate physical location of sources in a home library. Thinking about how I physically store information, I created a coding system to indicate whether the item is a book or is stored in a binder or filed in a manila folder. My system uses a code that includes year, type of document, and a name (YYT-Name). The year is a two-digit number indicating year acquired. The type of document is a single letter, and the name indicates author or subject. For example, the code for a book could be F for fiction or H for historic. File folders could be J for journal or W for Website. Some file folders may have type T, O, or P, depending upon whether it is organized by topic, organization or people. The system assumes that Zotero is the central depository that will store the code associated with the physical document. The code is stored in the Zotero ‘Extra’ field, and all physical items are labeled with this code. The format was designed to facilitate electronic searching. A search of ‘12J-‘ will easily find all journal articles acquired in 2012 without returning non-relevant items. See Appendix A.

Examples:

14H-Hine indicates a book acquired in 2014, author’s last name is Hine.

12O-WCTU is a file from 2012 about the organization WCTU.

2. Determine a naming system to indicate physical location of sources.

While some sources are available in personal libraries as books or printed copies of articles, others are only available in public libraries or archives. My system uses my initials to indicate my library. I use ‘UW-library’ to indicate my school library, ‘WSHS’ to indicate Wisconsin State Historical Society, and other appropriate initials for other libraries and archives. The Zotero field ‘Lib Catalog’ is used to store this information, when available. If a journal article was obtained online, the entry will also reference the database, e.g. JSTOR/RPJ. See Appendix A.

3. Determine a keyword system for tagging sources.

I have developed general keywords that tell me about the source, project keywords that relate directly to my topic, and people and place keywords based on characteristics of people, such as gender and ethnicity, and names of places. This system could include time keywords also. I keep a printed copy of this list handy when tagging new sources. See Attachment B.

4. Determine a keyword system for tagging notes.

Zotero allows the tagging of individual notes. This is useful in tagging notes, not only by topic, but also by type of note. I am using the keyword ‘summary’ to indicate a note that explains why I find this source useful for my project. Notes tagged with ‘analysis’ are notes that include my thoughts and ideas. I use ‘quote’ for cutting and pasting direct quotes. Any notes tagged ‘review’ indicate more detailed content notes. I may just use one large ‘review’ note for a source or I may create multiple notes tagged with this type. See Appendix B.

5. Develop a library research form.

I developed a paper form for recording information about sources reviewed in libraries and archives. I bring these forms with me when visiting archives and attach one form per source to paper copies acquired at the archives. These forms are helpful for collecting the information needed for citations and the bibliography. The forms and attachments are then labeled and filed using the appropriate filing code from my manual file system. See Appendix C.

6. In Zotero, create a new ‘Collection’ hierarchy.

I use the Zotero ‘Collections’ feature to indicate the progress of my note taking. I do not organize by topic, as the keywords provide the ability to create topical lists on demand. The name of the ‘Collection’ folder is the project name. In my case, the project is called ‘Thesis’. As a source is tagged and notes are added, I move the item from one temporary folder to another to the final folders that separate primary and secondary sources. Any item filed in the folders for primary or secondary sources should be fully annotated. I created one folder to collect all the references in my working bibliography. I also create separate folders to organize the events, organizations and people in one place. See Appendix D.

7. Establish new meanings for Zotero metadata fields in ‘Report’ type items.

To help record relationships between people, organizations and events, I am re-purposing the ‘Report’ type item to collect information on these subjects. I have established a different meaning for some of the fields and keep a reference sheet handy to relate the field to its new purpose. For my project, the field ‘Report Type’ will be coded as ‘People’, ‘Organization’, or ‘Event’ to facilitate a search by that term to create reports. The ‘Place’ field will indicate the first township associated with a person or organization, but could be township, city, county or country for an event. The ‘Short Title’ field will be used to indicate ethnicity. The meaning of ‘Date’ will be estimated or known birthdate for a person, date established for an organization and date of event for an event. The ‘URL’ field will be used to indicate whether the date is known or estimated. The ‘Language’ field will be re-purposed to indicate a birth state or country for a person or a specific type of organization or event. Organization and event types will be selected from a fixed list. See Appendix E.

8. Annotate and link Zotero sources to people, organizations, and events.

Each time a source references a person, organization or event, I create a new item or link existing items to the new source by adding the source to the ‘Related’ section of that item. I add a note indicating fact found and the page number in the source. By using this ‘Related’ feature, one can determine how and when different people interacted and can help establish relationships that may not have been easily discoverable using other methods.

9. In Zotero, link people to other people to build kinship networks.

By using this same ‘Related’ feature to link spouses, children, and other relatives, it becomes possible to discover kinship networks.

10. Run Zotero reports to assist in the analysis and writing process.

The search, report and timeline functions of Zotero produce flexible reports to help with analysis and writing. Consult the Zotero documentation page, https://www.zotero.org/support/, for more information on creating a table of contents, citations and bibliographies. Detailed instructions for creating four sample reports are provided in Appendix F.

Appendix A: Code for Filing Physical Sources

Store physical location of source in field, if available, ‘Lib Catalog’

Store filing code in field ‘Extra’

Format = YYT-name

Where YY= year acquired; T=Type (one alpha letter); name equals author or subject.


Single Alpha letter Codes for Type

 Item is a physical book. Name is author.

F          fiction – books of fiction

H         historic – books on historical topic

N         nonfiction – books that are not historical

M        methods – books on writing methods

Item is filed in a binder. Name is subject.

B         binder – filed in 3-ring binder

Item is filed in a file folder. Name is author.

J          journal – journal article

W        web site – web pages, blog posts, on-line essays. Does not include on-line journals, but does include printed copies of articles and sections of digitized books that are filed in a folder.

Item is filed in a file folder. Name is subject.

O         organization

P          people

T          topic – covers a specific topic, and is not a book or journal article. May included multiple items in one folder. Use sparingly.

Examples:

Extra: 14H-Hine indicates a history book acquired in 2014, author’s last name is Hine.

Extra: 12O-WCTU is a file from 2012 about the organization WCTU.

Lib Catalog: RPJ means the source is available in my personal library.

Lib Catalog: RPJ/EBSCOhost means the source was obtained from the listed database.

Lib Catalog: UW-Library indicates the source can be found in my school library.

Appendix B: Keywords for Tagging Sources and Notes

Select keywords specific to topic being studied

 Keywords for tagging sources

Sample keywords for project investigating role women played in building community

General Topic Category People/Place (Specify)
Thesis club Ethnicity
Primary economic Gender
Secondary education
Census home Country
Local History Populism State
Lit Review prohibition County
ToDo religion Town
social Township
Community suffrage
Women temperance

 

Notes:

  • Use Lit Review if source is referenced in literature review
  • Use ToDo if source is in process of being annotated but is not complete.
  • Use Community and Women keywords only for secondary sources that discuss the topic of community building and women’s roles.

Keywords for tagging notes:

 Summary: first note indicates why resource us useful

Analysis: place for writing thoughts and ideas

Quote: cut and paste direct quotes

Review: complete content notes

 

Appendix C: Library Research Form

Folder Name ________________________

 

 

Date:
Location:
Collection:
Publication:
Box/Folder:
Date Range:
Research Topic
Question?
List Page no or number of scans/copies

Notes:

Appendix D. Collection Hierarchy

 Create a new Collection and title it with your project name. Create Sub-Collections as indicated.

Thesis

DropBox1Raw

DropBoxFiltered

Report Facts

Events

Organization

People

SrcPrimary

SrcSecondary

WorkingBib

DropBox1Raw: I store new sources in this folder when doing discovery searches, before annotating or tagging.

 DropBoxFiltered: Once I determine to use a source, I create a summary note indicating why this source is useful and tag with pre-defined keywords. When moving a source to DropBoxFiltered, it must be manually removed from DropBox1Raw.

 Report Facts: When creating a new report item to represent an event, organization or people, I file the item in one of these folders.

 SrcPrimary or SrcSecondary: When annotation is complete and the item is tagged appropriately, I file the source as appropriate in one of these folders and remove from DropBoxFiltered.

 WorkingBib: Any item that is included in my working bibliography should be included in this folder. These items can and should be repeated in other folders. The idea is to copy the item to this folder after validating that the Zotero-created bibliographic reference is accurate. Therefore, this Collection indicates proofed and accurate bibliographic references.

Appendix E: Report Item Translator

 

Report Fields People Organization Event
Title Full Name and AKA, include married and birth names Name of Org or institution Name of Event
Author Last, first
Abstract general notes, family general notes, membership general notes, attendees
Report Number
Report Type People Organization Event
Series Title gender State/Country
Place First Township First Township Township/City/County
Institution Organization
Date Est Birthdate Date Established Date of Event Start
Pages Date of Event End
Language Origin state or country Org Type Event Type
Short Title Ethnicity Ethnicity Ethnicity
URL Fact/Estimated Fact/Estimated Fact/Estimated
Accessed
Archive
Loc. In Archive
Lib Catalog Location of source Location of source Location of source
Call Number
Rights
Extra Filing Code Filing Code Filing Code
Language: Event Type Holiday, Election, Social, Religious, Education, Political
Language: Org Type Church, School, TownGovt, Ladies Aid, Woman’s Club,
WCTU, Political Party, Suffrage Org
URL Indicate if date is fact or estimated
Lib Catalog: Location RPJ; UW Library, WSHS
Extra: Filing Code 14H-Hine; 12J-Crane

Appendix F: Sample Reports

Create a summary report of all sources

  1. Under My Library, open the project folder
  2. Click on keyword ‘summary’ in lower left corner of Zotero page
  3. From Internet browser, pull down menu ‘Edit’, select ‘Select All’
  4. Right click in center window and select ‘Generate Report from items’
  5. Report is produced in Internet browser window.

Create a report of all detailed notes on a specific topic

  1. Under My Library, open the project folder
  2. Click on all ‘Review’ and other desired keywords in lower left corner of Zotero page
  3. From Internet browser, pull down menu ‘Edit’, select ‘Select All’
  4. Right click in center window and select ‘Generate Report from items’
  5. Report is produced in the Internet browser window.

 Create a saved search to locate all those who share kinship with Jones family

  1. Under My Library, open the project sub-folder ‘People’
  2. Click on the magnifying glass in the Zotero menu
  3. Enter ‘Title’ ‘contains’ ‘Jones’
  4. Click on + sign to the right of the criteria line
  5. Enter ‘Type’ ‘contains’ ‘People’
  6. Click ‘Save Search’ button and name search
  7. Click on saved search
  8. Right click in center window and select ‘Generate Report from items’
  9. Review ‘Related’ section of report for relationships

 Create a timeline

  1. Open the project sub-folder ‘Events’
  2. Follow instructions at https://www.zotero.org/support/timelines

[1] Zotero is a production of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the Corporation for Digital Scholarship.

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