My Alternative to Zotero

You might not know this about me but I’m somewhat obsessive compulsive when it comes to making lists.  It’s either OCD or my addictive personality at work, but whatever it is, I have an uncontrollable urge to catalog things.  Let me give you a bit of history before getting into the main subject of this post.

On January 23, 2009 my Dell desktop PC gave up the ghost.  A week to the day later I mourned the loss of certain valuable bits of information, one of which was the complete bibliographic catalog of my entire library, something that took me a long time to compile and was immeasurably helpful.  I was not excited to go through all of my books and re-catalog them (even though I knew that I would be compelled to do so) so it was with great pleasure that six days later I discovered an earlier draft of that catalog on my external hard drive which in combination with a my books received page and a list of purchases from 2008 I had posted on the blog made re-cataloging much less of a chore.  Back to the present…

So it was with great pleasure that I read Andy Naselli’s (whom I’ve been mistaken for before) Reformation 21 post “Why You Should Organize Your Personal Theological Library and a Way How.”  In the post Andy extols the virtues of the freeware program Zotero which has been recommended to me by a great many people over the past 2-3 years.  I’ve considered it but I’ve not taken the plunge because I’ve always wondered how useful it will be to me ultimately.  After reading Andy’s post I can see the attraction but I don’t know that it’s that much better than my current system.  Back to me…

So the one thing that turned me off to Zotero from reading Andy’s post was that I’d have to essentially re-catalog all of my resources which number in the thousands so the thought of having to re-enter data that I already have recorded is not at all appealing to me.  Sure, I’m a compulsive cataloger, but I’ve already done the work, why do it again?  So here’s what I do and it works fine for me.

  • When I get a new print book I go to my master MS Word document and I enter the bibliographic information (author/editor, title, place of publication, publisher, year).  That’s it.  When I need to look up something I open the Word doc and search it.  When I need to copy a reference I open the Word doc and cut and paste it.  Simple right?  It really is and it’s quite painless as well.
  • For digital books I do very much the same thing.  I have a master MS Word document that I enter all the bibliographic information in and when I need to copy the bibliographical info for a footnote or bibliography then I open the file, search it, and copy.  Again, it couldn’t be easier.  But for some digital books I also have them separated by subject in separate folders on my external hard drive or collections on Logos.  So if I need to research something on a certain subject I just go to that folder.  Or if I can’t remember what folder something is in I just have to type the author’s last name or part of the book’s title into the search box.
  • And this is generally how I locate articles since I have more than I’m willing to catalog at the moment.  When I need something I first look in the logical folder that it should be in and if I have problems then I’ll search for the author or title.

It might seem like a bit more work than Zotero but given the fact that I’ve already done all the hard stuff it really isn’t.  If I was just getting into cataloging then Zotero seems like something that would be well worth the initial effort, but at this point I don’t know that I’m willing to devote the time to it, maybe one day.


21 thoughts on “My Alternative to Zotero

  1. So, in what way did your old computer die? It’s less common for hard drives to be hosed in such an event. Your data is likely still intact on the old drive. You could take out the old hard drive and (depending upon what kind of connector it has) plug it into the new one (either directly or with an adapter) and get all your old stuff off of it. Just send me an email if you need more instructions on that. (My full-time job is that of an IT sysadmin.)

  2. Kevin: Thanks for the offer (again). We tried that when it initially happened, remember? The hard drive itself was the problem with the old PC. I never did find out why or how it happened but my father tried to put it into his PC and partition the drives or something like that and it locked his computer up. Then I considered taking the case off my external hard drive (at your suggestion) and trying to plug the old hard drive into it and see if I could recover the data that way but I kept thinking I was going to break the external hard drive because it was making some weird sounds when I was trying to get the case off.

  3. Thanks for the post, Nick. I wholeheartedly agree with you. I looked into Zotero and similar bibliographic tools (such as Endnote), but I do not use them. I organize my physical library according to the Library of Congress call numbers and keep bibliographic information on a Word document as if it was a bibliography for a research paper. My apprehension with using Zotero et al. is that by the time I finish entering every book’s information on that, then there will be a new program and I would be persuaded to switch to that, and then in the future switch to another and so on.

    There is no advantage for me to use a system with a sortable list because I have my books organized by subject on the shelves. The video Andy Naselli provides gives an example of when sorting would be helpful: someone asks for books on a subject and you can simply click on a folder on that subject. If you organize your books according to the Library of Congress call numbers (though an imperfect system) you can simply do a physical search because they are sorted by subject, thus no need to enter your books into a new system such as Zotero. If you are overlooking a book because it spans several subject and is not located among similar books, then get to know your library.

    In the end, it seems that a very simple way to organize book is (1) to place them on shelves according to the Library of Congress call numbers and (2) enter bibliographic information on a Word document, which you can then search with Ctrl + f.

    I believe Zotero et al. are only fads but Word (or a program that can read Word) will last my lifetime. I am not advocating against the use of these types of programs, only that a simpler method works just as well for me.

    How do you organize your books on the shelves? Do you use Library of Congress or another system?

  4. Greg: I’m with you. I actually downloaded Zotero a couple of hours ago just to see how it worked and I found it somewhat difficult to use. It wasn’t intuitive at all. I could have entered in more than a dozen books into my Word doc in the time I spent fumbling around with that thing. I tried out Library Thing a while back and I didn’t care much for that either. I suppose I still have a couple hundred books cataloged on there but I couldn’t tell you since I haven’t looked at the thing in a long time.

    I don’t use any kind of normalized system to organize my books. I simply arrange them according to subject. So my library is pretty much split up into books on the following subjects:

    Bibles (Hebrew, Greek, English)
    Reference Works (dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc.)
    Theology (OT/NT, Biblical, Systematic)
    New Testament
    Old Testament
    Historical Jesus
    Pentecostal/Charismatic stuff
    Church History

    It’s not perfect but it works for me. I only have about 700 physical books and probably more than 100 of them are boxed up because I ran out of space to shelve them a while ago so I pretty much know where everything is and where everything goes.

  5. I do essentially the same thing, Nick, and also gave Zotero a whirl this morning. It’s pretty good, but like you, I’ve already got things organized in a master document. I may use Zotero to some extent, for papers and such, but I will likely stick with my word file. I would like, however, if there were a suitable pc counterpart to Mac’s Delicious Library.

  6. Nick, you have 700 books? That is quite an impressive collection sir! At my peak, I only had 300-350, but I have sold and gave away a whole bunch and last time I counted I was at about the 200 mark.

    I have not tried Zotero, but like you, I keep my own Word document with a bibliography of what I have (though I haven’t actually updated it in quite a while, oops!)

    I tried Library Thing, but after adding 100 books to it, I just gave up.

  7. Diglot: It’s alright, and I’m definitely blessed to have all that I do, but it’s peanuts compared to other folks we know. Some bloggers (I won’t name names) have 10x that many!

    And Library Thing is a waste of time and energy. I never did see the point. I just went with the free service after nagging from a lot of people.

  8. Nick: Thanks for the link. I gave it a try, but I read that its web site has been defunct a while, hence no support or updates. It was fun while it lasted! I’ve tried a few others, but for various reasons I didn’t like them. One program, called All My Books was nice, so I may go back purchase a license. They did have an offer going that you could receive a discounted or free license if you blogged a review, so I may pursue that option.

  9. Jason: Gotcha. Too bad about that. I guess I’ll wait and see if you blog about that other program. For my money they’re all more trouble than they’re worth.

  10. Everyone should do what works for her or him. So sticking with a system you’re happy with is a good idea.

    But just to give you some ideas on why people do use Zotero et al.:
    One thing is that Zotero and similar software have the biggest advantage when working with articles – you download article and data with one click – no need to leave your browser, no need to click through to the right folder to save etc. Also, you can more easily sort and search by various categories – you might be interested in the last articles you added. Or the most recently published one. Or the ones published in a particular Journal – using a database system (like Zotero, Mendeley, Endnote – or, to some extend, even Excel) – helps you to do that.

    It’s also a big help when citing literature – if you’re in a field where all publications use essentially the same format, that doesn’t really matter. But in most fields you’ll have to conform to a range of different publication styles – Bibliography software helps you to do that with one click rather than going through your entire document.

    It makes getting the citation data faster and less error prone – instead of typing I just click a button and Zotero imports the relevant data.
    etc. etc.

    Now, I’m sure there are people who don’t need any of that and particularly if you’ve started with a system already there’s a good chance that it’s not worth the time switching – but starting from scratch using some type of database based bibliographical solution is a good idea for pretty much any scholar.
    And these aren’t fads, of course – Endnote has been around for over 20 years now for a reason. People are increasingly unhappy with it, so they are switching – but that’s a lot less work than
    ith using Zotero et al. is that by the time I finish entering every book’s information on that, then there will be a new program and I would be persuaded to switch to that, and then in the future switch to another and so on.
    would suggest – Bibliographical software has standardized output formats, so getting your Endnote library into Zotero is pretty painless – maybe half a day’s work – and, e.g., getting your Zotero library into Mendely is completely painless – takes less than 30mins.

  11. Sebastian: If I didn’t already had something that worked for me I’d probably use Zotero. The problem is that because of my already established way of doing things it’s very counterintuitive as my trial run with it yesterday showed me. For someone just starting out who hasn’t already been ‘tainted’ then I imagine it would be great.

  12. Oh, that’s right, Nick! How forgetful of me!

    Well, if you still have the drive around, you might try it again at some point. Sometimes letting them sit unused for a while helps. Your dad could maybe try plugging it into his computer again. Although by now, maybe you don’t want all that old stuff….

    These days, terabyte drives are becoming so cheap, you may as well just buy a 1 or 2 TB external drive and make a habit of full and incremental backups.

  13. Kevin: I don’t think I have it anymore. I’d have to look around and check. To be honest, I don’t really miss what was on there. Most of my important Word docs were backed up on a flash drive and my external hard drive and really the only thing I lost was the Pradis software and the books that came with it. I have a few of them in print and the others didn’t get used much if at all.

    I might get a 1 TB external drive eventually. As it stands I still have loads of space on my 250 GB external drive. It mostly houses PDFs and MP3s these days.

  14. I seldom enter book information manually in Zotero. I usually just find the items I need in Google Scholar or some library catalog, and let Zotero extract that information.

    I would never find it adequate to keep all of my wide range of sources in anything other than a database, like Zotero, that allows me to tag content, add notes, search it by different criteria, etc.

    As for the concern about migrating data, that’s largely misplaced. Most bibliographic applications export their data (or at least most of it) to standard formats.

  15. Bruce: I couldn’t figure out how to let Zotero do anything and I don’t have the patience to learn through tutorials or reading help guides. I like my software to be intuitive for the most part. And tags and notes aren’t really necessary for my concerns. I’m fairly organized with my system so I can find everything pretty easily.

  16. I agree with you…most of the “helpful” organizational software I have used only adds to the clutter and soon becomes obsolete. A searchable word processing document works just as well, though I have not applied this to my library. You’ve inspired me…I’m going to start cataloging my books!

    Have you ever used Librarything? I noticed that Mike Aubrey uses it and I wanted to get your thoughts.

  17. Matthew: I’m glad to have been a source of inspiration!

    I have used LibraryThing and its useless. You can only catalog 200 books for free and after that you have to pay. I haven’t looked at it in years because I’d rather look at my Word doc. I’d also mention that the book images that they insert for you are not all uniform and it ends up looking ridiculously sloppy. It really offends my aesthetic sensibilities.

  18. A similar program, developed specifically for theological studies (not my field), is Nota Bene. I shelled out the cash after being unsatisfied with how fragile Word’s hypertext links seemed to be. With Nota Bene it’s simple to link a bibliographical entry with a text file for notes.
    HOWEVER, until they fulfill their promise to update it for 64 bit machines, I’ll be using the caveman method too.

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