Zotero for Genealogy – Getting Started

Once I decided to move my research notes and source information out of RootsMagic and into Zotero I had to figure out how to bend that scholarly research program to my genealogy needs. Someday maybe I’ll dig in deeper and write some custom source templates, rename the fields, really create a shareable genealogy configuration for Zotero. Until then, I needed to learn how to use it the way it is.

With each Zotero entry, you choose the TYPE of item that it is, and then input the data about that item in the fields that are presented. Each different type of source shows different fields. None of them exactly match the kinds of things we genealogists look at, so there’s going to be some adaptation required.

Then there’s the output – Zotero will create the footnote you need based on the information about the item that you have entered. You need to choose which citation style you’re going to use. WILDLY different footnote sentences are created based on the differing citation formats.

It took more than a little experimentation for me to figure out what was going to work best for me. First, I want Turabian 8th edition (full note) format citations. That’s not included with the default program, I had to download it as an additional style. Chicago Manual of Style was close, but didn’t include the accessed date, which I wanted.

For item types, I use document 99% of the time. I’ve used newspaper article when it was appropriate. For now, I’m not going to use the website type because it doesn’t include the “callno” field and I’m using that to track my progress at re-doing all of my sources. If you’re just starting out, I would imagine the website type would be just fine.

I only use some of the fields, and I’ve adapted them a bit as well.

Seriously, anyone who wants to spend time digging in to the XML to create a new citation style and document type fields so that we could have real Zotero for Genealogy that would be GREAT!

So here’s the bottom line:

  1. Download Zotero and install it on your computer
  2. In Preferences – General: uncheck “automatically rename attachment files using parent metadata”
  3. In Preferences – Cite: use “get additional styles” to get Turabian 8th edition (full note)” and install it.
  4. In Preferences – Export: select Turabian as your default format for quick copy

Now we’re ready to add the first source, I’ll use my grandmother’s birth certificate as an example

Fields to Use

Title: title of doc, will be entirely enclosed in quotesscreenshot_20180627_002

Author: Can use just the last name field, or first/last

Publisher: Will be a separate sentence, followed by date.

Date: date of publication

Short Title: can put the RM short title here, but copy to extra as well

URL: just the main website where the doc was found

Accessed: date the document was retrieved

Archive: repository, full sentence

Loc. in Archive: sentence before the repository sentence

Call Number: my control number, can be displayed in item listing

Extra: short title, can be displayed in item listing

Zotero will make a footnote as follows:

AuthorLastName, AuthorFirstName. “Title.” Publisher, date. Loc in Archive. Archive. Accessed (accessed date). URL.

Given the use of fields as shown in the image, the footnote created via Zotero, using the Turabian style is:

State of Texas, Department of Heath, Bureau of Vital Statistics. “Certificate of Birth: Katie Alma Riffle.” Forreston, Ellis, Texas, September 6, 1958. Leslie Price’s Collection.

The beauty of this is…screenshot_20180627_003

I create this entry in Zotero, then I add notes as desired, I add a link to the file for reference, I add tags, use whatever zotero features I like, then when it’s time to put it into RootsMagic, it’s very easy.

While in the Zotero item, shift+ctrl-c copies the footnote sentence, then paste over to RM and boom, there’s the source, done.

A few notes about setting up the view of Zotero. I like to sort and look at my sources by the Short Title, and for some silly reason that’s not an available field in the middle pane. So I have chosen to use the “extra” field to have the short title in it and show up in the middle panel. It’s weird, again, that would be something I’d change in Zotero if I could.

But for now – using those few fields in the Document item type, and the Turabian citation style, gets me a “good enough” footnote sentence that outputs to GEDCOM exactly as written, so with maximum interoperability and transfer of information to other places.

Using Zotero with Genealogy

After years of dancing around the idea of having separate tools for my genealogy database and my research process, I’ve finally settled on using Zotero during my research and to manage my source information, and using RootsMagic to manage and control the conclusions I draw about my family history. My only regret is that I waited so long – adding Zotero into the mix has been really beneficial.

What is Zotero

It’s a database for your research and your sources, just like RootsMagic is a database for your conclusions.

I expect that I’ll make a whole series of posts about Zotero and RootsMagic, there’s a lot to say. So let’s start with why, why two separate tools?

It’s all GEDCOM’s fault

Twenty-five years into my genealogy hobby and GEDCOM is still the standard in use for transferring information. Unbelievable, but true. It was an old and dead standard when I started, I assumed the better solution would come along soon.

I set out using my genealogy program’s special  Source Templates that matched Elizabeth Shown Mills Evidence! standards. I wanted to adhere to standards (still do). I used the template fields. I spent a TON of time getting things just right. GEDCOM output of that information was basically garbage, but that didn’t matter. Bad GEDCOM output would be a short term thing, and what mattered long term was getting the source information input into the proper fields to adhere to Mills’ standards.

Flash forward 25 years and I want to make my genealogy data (currently in RootsMagic) available on the web, I want to show what I’ve got, toss out some feelers for more cousins. GEDCOM is still the way. Still. Export to GEDCOM to create the website you host using TNG. Export to GEDCOM for WikiTree or MyHeritage or Ancestry. Even if you use the new sync with Ancestry stuff, the source transfer is all freeform / full sentences rather than those lovely template fields so lovingly set up in RM.

Freeform sources in the genelogy program are the only sane solution. Input the fully written out footnote sentence into your genealogy program, and it will output via GEDCOM exactly as written.

So now what?

I use RootsMagic as my desktop program now, TNG for display on my website, and do some syncing with the Family Search Family Tree. I need all of my sources to be freeform, and for the notes that I have about those sources to be stored outside of the RM file. It just doesn’t need to be accidentally exported and gunk up my GEDCOM files.

Thus I need two separate things – a place for research/source info and a place for the lineage linked genealogy. Two separate purpose built databases.

What is there for managing research, and then creating bibliography / footnote information from that data? Zotero.

Zotero has tempted me for years

I’ve looked at Zotero, installed it, read the forums about it, for years. Of course I have. It’s the real tool for research and citation of sources. It’s a purpose built database to store the metadata about your screenshot_20180625_003sources in a structured way, it can output footnotes and bibliography entries to match whatever you need. It’s flexible, it’s what the pros use – it lets me “organize MY way”.

BUT…I was never able to get genealogy sources to fit into it. It was always both too much and not enough. Then there was an article about it on EOGN (https://blog.eogn.com/2018/05/08/zotero-your-personal-research-assistant/). It inspired me to have another look, to give it a more thorough try.

Read the article at EOGN to learn a bit more about the program itself, I’ll give a more thorough overview in further articles. Suffice to say, this time it worked, I gave it a more thorough run through, I was able to imagine how it would work for me.

The initial plan is to tackle the sources I have with attached exhibits – the copies of birth certificates, the copies of census pages, etc. It’s a massive project, but thoroughly necessary.

An elephant is eaten one bite at a time. The only way to get this done is to just start, and the first folder of my exhibits is “birth_records” so that’s where I started. Doing all of the records of the same type was the EXACT best way to learn how to bend Zotero to my needs, and to get used to how it works. I can build my expertise with this thing one step at a time.

That first record I entered, and then changed, then changed again a few times. Then after about 3 birth records, I decided I wanted to do something differently, so I made the change to those three, then forged ahead.

At this point, I’ve done the birth records, and am now going through my census records. WHAT A REVELATION!  I now can’t imagine doing genealogy without Zotero. Just for the way I’m using it to handle census pages makes it worth the effort.

Future articles will show you exactly how I’ve done this, for now, if you’re at all curious about Zotero, go to their website and have a look around. Don’t be intimidated by the fact that there’s no “custom genealogy” source information, it will work for you, I promise!

Just have a glance at how some of these census items look in Zotero – on the left you see the groups I’ve set up so far, then you can see that each of the census pages has an entry from which the footnote is created, then I add a note where I can write all the data on the census page, my notes, the list of people, whatever I want, and I add links to the image files, which are also linked in my genealogy database. I’ll explain it all later, but just check it out for a bit of a flavor of what you can do with Zotero for Genealogy.