Using Zotero for personal knowledge management

Have you ever read an article that was really good but then couldn’t find it 6 to 8 months later? Ever saw a meme that you thought was really hilarious, but couldn’t pull it up when it came relevant in that family chat? Ever seen a video that was really thought-provoking, but you could never find it again in your LinkedIn feed?

Yeah, me too.

I like to think about my online content consumption in two categories:

  1. Disposable: which includes things like help docs, how-to blog posts, threads on Stack Overflow and Reddit, and most YouTube videos.
  2. Evergreen: stuff that I want to reference later (e.g., long-form explanatory articles, podcasts, etc.)

Help docs and forums get updated all the time, plus I can usually find what I’m looking for again with the right query, so I don’t see the need to save those. But evergreen stuff doesn’t always come from a query—many things worth reading and referencing later can’t be surfaced by the algorithm. Some sources I use to discover high-yield, high-value content include:

The volume of information I encounter and consume far outpaces my ability to analyze and synthesize everything. For a lot of things, that’s OK because I can just look it up again later. But for things that fit in the evergreen category, I want to remember what I’ve read and reference it when it becomes relevant. For example, a conversation at work may prompt me to remember something I read in the past. If I can’t find it, then the point is moot. I might remember the general contours of what was said and how it applies to the current situation, but I can’t go back and really dig into those ideas.

I view this is a form of knowledge leakage. Memory is easily corruptible, and I forget which articles, podcasts, and videos I’ve listened to. And I certainly can’t remember specifically what was said. To this end, I’ve realized I need to have a more disciplined approach to personal knowledge management, not in the sense of writing everything down, but in the sense of aggregating my collected, reading, viewing, and listening into one searchable personal library. It’s one thing to have a physical library that I can leverage, but what about all the digital stuff?

Enter Zotero

Zotero is described as “Your personal research assistant.”1 I heard about it years ago, but I didn’t really understand how it would fit into my workflow or why I needed it. It was explained to me as a citation manager, but I thought I know how to cite in Chicago well enough. If I need help, I’ll just read the manual. End of discussion. It seemed like a tool to solve a problem I didn’t have.

I used Evernote to save articles for a while because I liked the web clipper, but then the product got stagnant and I moved on. I clipped articles like a madman, but I didn’t really have a good system for cultivating anything useful from my aggregated reading.

Fast forward to today, and Zotero is becoming an important tool in my personal knowledge management workflow. I’ve learned some things about myself and the internet since my Evernote days, which include:

  • I can’t always anticipate when an article will become useful to me. That time might be years from now.
  • It’s a waste of time to read something and forget it. Dan Berg says, “Reading a book but retaining zero information is the same as not reading the book at all.”2 I concur.
  • I need a way to track my content consumption progress and trends for self-reflection.
  • Finding something on the internet years later is a dubious prospect, The Internet Archive notwithstanding. Articles go behind paywalls, sites get restructured, SEO practices get upended, SERPs retool their algorithms, AI starts writing responses to queries so you never make it to the actual page, etc.

The Features I Like in Zotero

Zotero has a number of features that make it simple and a useful tool for personal knowledge including:

  • Seamless addition and creation of new items. Zotero makes it easy to add books, articles, and podcasts to my library. I can scan book barcodes, use OCR to lookup ISBNs, and add items via a browser extension. Zotero automatically imports all of the metadata it can find.
  • Space for notes attached to each item. The notes features is handy for adding key takeaways. I typically write my overall impressions of a book in the front inside cover, and it’s nice to begin building a digitized version of that.
  • A folder and tagging system. Organizing all of my items with folders and tags enables Zotero to work like a personal bookshelf: a place where I can organize my books according to subject and then reference them later.
  • Citation generation. It creates properly formatted notes and Bibliographic citations for me in Chicago, which I find immensely helpful in speeding up the writing process for this site. I stand corrected on thinking that I didn’t need this. Ah, to be a naive young professional.
  • Cross-device and -platform sync. I can take this library with me everywhere I go.

In my opinion, the most important thing is having a process for aggregating information that is sustainable and accessible for in the future while being as frictionless as possible. Zotero hits all of those points.

What I’ve Learned from Using Zotero

I’m working to build the habit of taking a moment to add anything that seems useful to Zotero as soon as I’m done reading, listening, or watching. I’m relying on tags to link information together, and I may incorporate a folder structure once I add more content. A further step in this process would be downloading PDFs of articles and filing them away for true future safekeeping in case a link breaks. But as they say: it’s about the journey, not the destination.

I’ve already started to see the fruit of adding things to Zotero. I feel like I’m treating web-based articles with more respect since I’m evaluating everything according to whether I want to reference it or not. While reading, I ask myself some variation of, “Is this evergreen or disposable?” It’s a useful filter that makes reading a more intentional process.

I’ve noticed that more of my reading generates potential blog ideas precisely because I’m thinking more about engaging with that content in a later date. Saving things in Zotero means that I can let the idea simmer until I decide to tackle that piece. I don’t have to worry about finding the sources that inspired the piece—the research is already archived.

This past week, I also published my first bibliography of monthly reading and listening. It was very gratifying to see a comprehensive list of all the things I read or listened to in a month. I’ve never taken that kind of reflective view of my content consumption, and Zotero helped make that possible. I know I left some things out of that list, but I anticipate that future months will be more complete.

Zotero is a tool I didn’t know I needed, but I’m glad that I rediscovered it and that it makes sense now. If you’re looking for something to help you keep track of sources for college or for personal knowledge management, I recommend giving it a try. Your memory and future self will thank you.

  1. “Zotero | Your Personal Research Assistant,” accessed September 5, 2023, https://www.zotero.org/. ↩︎
  2. “Recalling Books You’ve Read, Made Easy,” April 21, 2022, https://dannb.org/blog/2022/recalling-books-youve-read-made-easy/. ↩︎
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