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Zotero Tutorial

How to organize your research and cite your sources

Published onDec 28, 2020
Zotero Tutorial

Zotero, is a free and open-source research and citation management tool that helps you “collect, organize, cite, and share” research materials.1 In Practice of History, we will use Zotero as our course platform so that you can learn the different facets of the tool incrementally over the semester.2 The purpose of this tutorial then, is not to teach you everything about Zotero all at once. Instead, its purpose is to provide you with a comprehensive overview that you can return to as a resource throughout the course.

Getting Started

Create an Account

For this course, you will need to register for a Zotero account with your official astate email address at:

Use the Zotero Web Application

Once you have an account, you can use the Zotero web application to access our course group library.

Screenshot of the Zotero web application.

Now that Zotero is fully integrated with Google Docs (more on that later) you can do almost everything via the web application. That said, I highly recommend that you download and use the desktop application, as it will provide you with a more stable working environment.

Download the Zotero Desktop Application

To download the desktop application, go to Zotero is cross-platform, so it can be installed on Mac, Windows, or Linux operating systems.

Screenshot of the Zotero desktop application.

When you download the desktop application, make sure to link it with your Zotero account so that when you use your desktop and web applications your libraries are synced.

Screenshot of the Zotero Preferences Sync window.

If you have problems installing Zotero, double check your computer’s settings and read through Zotero’s installation instructions here:

You can also download Zotero apps for your iPad and iPhone via the App Store. Although Zotero has not officially released a Zotero app for Androids, Zotero has a large community of users who have developed their own apps and plugins. To learn more check out Zotero’s Documentation specifically the sections on Zotero for Mobile and Plugins.

Install the Browser Extension

The Zotero Connector is an optional extension that you can install on the web browser of your choice. The Connector is a helpful yet problematic tool, so if you decide to install it please proceed with caution! It is helpful, because you can click on your web browser’s Zotero icon to save resources as you come across them on the web. It is problematic, because the information that is harvested from the web to auto-populate your Zotero library can be inaccurate and/or incomplete. So, when you add new items using the Zotero Connector, be sure to review and revise.


Historical research and writing requires the use of numerous and diverse source materials. These materials may include journal articles saved as PDFs, book titles that you plan to request via interlibrary loan, and links to primary source documents that have been digitized and made available online. To help you keep track of these different items, you can add them to your Zotero library.

Reference Information

To add an item to Zotero, click the green plus sign on the top right hand side of the desktop application, and search the drop-down menu to select the type of source. Zotero is created with a wide range of source material in mind, including, but not limited to: books, artworks, blog posts, films, encyclopedia articles, etc. Selecting the right type of source is important because the format and information included in a citation is dependent on the type of source.

Screenshot of a new Zotero entry for a book.

The screenshot above, is what you will see when you add a book to your Zotero library. While there are many Zotero fields pictured above (i.e. Item Type, Title, Author, Abstract, etc.) when you reference the Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition (Notes and Bibliography System)—the citation style we will use in this course— you will see that the only required information is Author, Title, Edition, Place, Publisher, and Date.

Plan to spend quite a bit of time referencing the Chicago Manual of Style, especially at the beginning of the course. It will take some time to learn what information is needed for different types of sources.

Files and URLs

In addition to storing reference information, which will come in handy when you begin the writing process, if you have a digital copy of the source, you can attach it as a file and/or link to the corresponding Zotero item.

Highlight and Annotate PDFs

If the file you attach is a PDF, you can highlight and annotate the document directly in Zotero using different colors, notes, and tags.

Sample annotation of a PDF in Zotero.


You can also add notes to Zotero items. This allows you to save your references, sources, and personal reflections all together in the same place.

Student note analyzing the primary source “On the Path to Great Emancipation,” Pravda, March 8, 1929, Women in World History Digital Archive,

If you annotate a PDF directly in Zotero, you can also pull your notes and highlights together into a single note within your library by right clicking on the name of the source and selecting “Add Note from Annotations.”


If you are like me, your Zotero account will get very, big very fast. I am constantly adding new items as I learn about resources that I may want to use in my research and teaching. To easily locate specific and/or related sources within an ever growing account, you can organize your items into Libraries and Folders, as well as add descriptive Tags.


In Zotero, you have one personal library, called My Library, and Group Libraries that can be shared among classmates, collaborators, and virtual communities. While My Library is pretty vague, each Group Library that you create or join will have a descriptive title. So, when you enroll in senior seminar two years from now and decide to write your final research paper on Nazi propaganda, you can easily access your Practice of History Group Library to find resources to assist you with research and writing, and your WWII Group Library from another course to help you locate relevant secondary sources.


Libraries, in turn, can be broken down into hierarchical folders or collections. For example, the WWII Group Library might have folders dedicated to Military History, Cultural History, and International Relations. The Military History folder, in turn, might be broken down into subfolders dedicated to the Eastern and Western Fronts.


With tags you can add additional keywords to Zotero items so that you can easily search across folders and libraries. You can add as many tags as you like to a Zotero item, and you can tag items based on diverse criteria, including, but not limited to, the topic of the resource (i.e. “20th Century” or “Women”), the type of resource (i.e. “Primary Source,” “Secondary Source,” or “Tertiary Source”), the evidence used by the author (i.e. “Oral Accounts” or “Census Data”), and/or notes to yourself (i.e. “To Read” or “To Find”).


Last, but by no means least, you can use Zotero to effortlessly cite your sources and create bibliographies as you are writing. Before explaining how, let’s briefly discuss why. As scholars, we cite our sources to:

  • show that we have done proper research,

  • allow readers to track down our sources,

  • give credit to others when we use their research or ideas, and

  • avoid plagiarism.

While all scholars cite their sources, different disciplines use different citation styles because they value or emphasize different elements of a source. Historians generally use footnotes (rather than in-text citations) formatted in accordance with the Chicago Manual of Style Note and Bibliography System. As Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning explains, “when developing a historical explanation from multiple primary sources, using footnotes instead of inserting parenthetical information allows the reader to focus on the evidence instead of being distracted by the publication information about that evidence. The footnotes can be consulted if someone wants to track down your source for further research.”3

Choose Citation Style and Output

It is important to know what elements need to be included in bibliographic references, and why different disciplines favor different styles. However, there is no need to memorize the distinct formatting conventions of each of these styles (i.e. Chicago, MLA, APA). So long as you keep your Zotero account filled with complete and correct item level information, you can format your references in any style or output (i.e. notes, citations, or bibliography) with a simple click.

Screenshot of a Zotero entry with complete and correct item level information.

Screenshot of the “Create Bibliography From Item” prompt in the Zotero desktop application.

For example, if we take the Zotero entry pictured above, we can produce all of the following references using the “Create Bibliography From Item” prompt.

Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition (style of choice among historians)

  • Note: Michelle Caswell, “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation,” The Public Historian 36, no. 4 (November 2014): 26–37,

  • Bibliography: Caswell, Michelle. “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation.” The Public Historian 36, no. 4 (November 2014): 26–37.

MLA 8th Edition (style of choice among humanists)

  • Citation: (Caswell + page number if applicable)

  • Bibliography: Caswell, Michelle. “Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation.” The Public Historian, vol. 36, no. 4, Nov. 2014, pp. 26–37. (Crossref), doi:10.1525/tph.2014.36.4.26.

APA 7th Edition (style of choice among social scientists)

  • Citation: (Caswell, 2014)

  • Bibliography: Caswell, M. (2014). Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation. The Public Historian, 36(4), 26–37.

Use the Word or Google Docs Plugin

The easiest way to create citations and bibliographies with Zotero, is to use its word processing plugins for Microsoft Word (directions here: or Google Docs (directions here: When you do this, you only have to make your style and output selections one time per document. Then you can effortlessly cite as you write, as demonstrated in the video below. What is more, when you are done writing your paper, all you have to do is click Create Bibliography and Zotero will automatically create an alphabetically organized bibliography in the selected style with all of the sources that have been cited in the document.

McGill Library video tutorial explaining how to use Zotero in Word to create footnotes and a bibliography.

Additional Resources

For additional assistance with Zotero, you can consult the following resources and/or post question on our course discussion board.

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