Aaron M. Moe

Assistant Professor of English at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame

Embrace your Cyborg Self: Zotero & Research Management Systems; or Violá

zotero_logoA couple of days ago, my father-in-law explained to me his research management system back when he was working on his doctoral degree. He had a shoebox, full of hundreds of notecards of citation information. To make “tags,” he had punched holes across the top of each card. Each hole, of course, corresponded with a particular topic or idea. If a notecard had only one tag, he had to cut out all the other holes. But you can imagine his elation when, after constructing this research management system, he took a wire, chose a tag, slowly guided the wire through the entire shoebox of notecards, lifted the wire up, and violá!—now all he had to do was go to the filing cabinet to retrieve the articles.

You also can imagine his “shaking of his head” when I showed him Zotero. Times have changed.

I guess I ought to back up. By “cyborg,” I am playing around with Haraway’s theories that spin out of those figures that demonstrate (and I love how she exposes the etymological kinship between demonstrate & monster…monsters signify in all of their destabilizing power)—but I am also thinking of Tony Stark. Not just because he flies around in that fancy red suit! I am really thinking of when he discovered (or did he create?) the new element in Iron Man II. He lifted up that holographic image out of the model of the cityscape, and then began shuffling the images around, pushing something away, pulling something near, until he threw the holographic data into a sphere of symmetry only to collapse it all down into his hands. Violá. The new element. He is the ultimate superhero intimately connected with technology. The ultimate cyborg.


You see, in mid July, I had a similar cyborg experience. Like Stark, I was able to envision, think, and be unhindered by technology. In fact, it was the technology that enabled me to have the tranquil space to think, generate ideas, and envision. Now, I didn’t create a new element, and it is really, really much less glamorous. All I did was make drafts of reading lists for my qualifying exams.

But here is the catch. I have been using Zotero for a year now, but I had not anticipated this moment. In mid July, I had a vague idea of sitting down and making folders for my exams, but I had underestimated what was about to happen. You see, during my MA, I created a research management system out of Word docs and folders. Though I became quite efficient (and though it may have even been a step above my father-in-law’s shoebox), I did not want to spend four years pulling sources from documents, notes, seminar papers, conference presentations, publications, etc.—all buried in myriad word documents. So, I had started out with Zotero, but had not fully realized what the next three hours were going to be like.

Basically, I spent three hours where I was not wasting any time searching for sources. It was all right there in front of me. All I did was go through my Zotero library, pull sources into new folders. It seems basic, but I spent the entire time envisioning the upcoming conversation I am going to sustain for the exams and for the dissertation. I began imagining a kind of narrative arc— but I like to call it a critical arc—of this conversation that I am going to generate: hundreds of sources in dialogue with each other into which I introduce and integrate my ideas.

I felt like a rock climber again, looking up at a large granite face, and envisioning lines of ideas, cruxes of connections, and what ought to be an intellectually thrilling endeavor.

But I would not have had as successful brainstorming session with another technology. The “i-tunes” set up of the Zotero library and folders made it so I was able to search, shift, drag, hundreds of sources rapidly, envisioning all the while. Because I could see all of my sources in front of me, I was able to make connections that, had these sources been buried in innumerable documents, I would have overlooked. If I thought of another source not yet in my Zotero library, within in moments I had found it at WSU’s library, hit the icon in the address bar, imported the citation information into Zotero, and was off dragging that source into a folder. All in a matter of seconds.

After about three hours, I simply right clicked on the folder, selected “create a bibliography,” and violá!—the next day, I began annotating.

When I look back on this experience, I can’t help but juxtapose it with “how it could have been” had I stuck with my antediluvian method from the past. It would have taken days instead of hours, and those days would have been spent, primarily, hunting down the specifics of the bibliographic info instead of envisioning the ideas.

So, I thank our WSU librarian [name withheld ] who introduced me to Zotero. I thank the programmers at Zotero. And I thank all of those people who work the forums that have been most helpful in getting me going with Zotero.

Now only if they can make a red suit with a big “Z” on it for all of us fans, Iron Man may get a run for his money.


Creative Commons License

All this work by Aaron Moe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at http://aaronmoe.com.