My Digital Reading Practices, Part 4

As an academic working for a university, part of my job (about 40%, at least as stated on paper) is devoted to research. And, a hefty part of producing new research is knowing what research already exists so I can build on and contribute to that existing body of literature. Also, as a teacher educator, I adopt a particular stance toward research — usually as a participatory action researcher — which means that I need to be familiar with both the “ivory tower,” “research says…” kinds of studies as well as “practitioner” types of research that appear both in publications, but also in workshops and conference sessions, as well as in the popular media.

Needless to say, it’s a lot of information to keep track of. Enter Zotero.

I’ve lauded Zotero before. However, I know — for my K-12 colleagues especially — that there are other bibliographic management tools, Citelighter being a significant one, that make more sense to teach our students. Zotero, like many of the other bibliographic management tools, takes “a minute to learn, a lifetime to master,” so to speak. So, when I have presented it to teachers in workshops, many are interested, but I don’t hear about many taking it up in their teaching practice afterward.

My Own Annotation Practices Using Zotero (and a few other tools)

At any rate, to pick up on the second part of Kristen’s comment from the other day: “Still curious about when you choose to annotate,” you need to know that I am, as Jony Ives might say, “unapologetically academic.” When I pick up a new book or look at a journal article, I begin at the end. I look at the list of references first; that is, I want to know if I am theoretically and methodologically aligned with the author(s) of the piece, or if he/she/they is/are coming from a different academic camp. Then, I read the conclusion. It’s not like this is a drama where reading the end will give something big away. Instead, I want to see where the text is heading so I know how to read it (as I described yesterday: upon, within, beyond, against or some combination of all four). I may then zero in on specific sections or chapters, and finally return to do a read straight through. It is at this point that I begin to annotate.

Capturing Text from Books, Articles, Webpages

Zotero Screenshot with Notes Window Open
Zotero Screenshot with Notes Window Open

It is during this read through that I begin to employ Zotero. While I can read academic pieces almost anywhere because I can access them via VPN on my laptop or iPad, when I really want to dive in and do some database searching I find it best to do at home. Zotero, and its great browser plugins, let me get authorial and publication metadata from all kinds of websites such as news, blogs, youTube videos, databases and more. I grab the citation, pull it into Zotero, and then begin to take notes.

Because I have a dual monitor setup at home, I can keep one screen open with Zotero and the other with the PDF or HTML version of the text. I do this so I can copy and paste key quotes from the text into Zotero as I find them, as shown in the image here. No highlighting for me in my own PDFs, just lots of copying, pasting, and citing page numbers. So, in this sense, I am simply gathering text from other sources that, eventually, I will use in my own writing as evidence via quotations.

In the case that I am reading a physical book, I will either use a voice recognition tool like MacSpeech Dictate to read the quote from the book and transcribe it into Zotero. There are many free voice-to-text tools, such as Dictanote, so you don’t have to buy a specific program. Occasionally, I will use an app on my iPhone, Image to Text, to snap a picture and then have it translated through optical character recognition (OCR), and I send it to myself via email, as shown in the series of pictures below of a selection from Hobbs and Moore’s new book, Discovering Media Literacy. I find the OCR to be generally good, but it does usually require me to do some clean up after I get the email and then copy/paste the quote into Zotero.

Other Zotero Features

My "Need to Read" Tag
My “Need to Read” Tag

Zotero also has some great tagging and sorting features, much like what we are used to with many read/write web tools that also store metadata. Like iTunes, I can create “smart” collections of items based on search criteria. For instance, as I am collecting everything from databases, I tag everything with “need to read.” Then, using the smart search, I have a folder created that lists all the items with the “need to read” tag. It appears, as shown here, with all the other tags that automatically came from the metadata on the article. This keeps my “need to read” list fresh. When I am done reading and adding notes, I simply delete the tag, and the article is eliminated from my list (but is still in my bigger Zotero library).

Zotero Shared Library
Zotero Shared Library

Lastly, I would note that Zotero allows us to use the power of cloud collaboration to create group libraries. For instance, here is a screenshot of the shared library that Kristen and I are using to write the NCTE book on digital reading. We can see when the item was added, as well as any notes or other attachments (such as the PDF version of an article). This comes in handy as we are working together so we can both see what each other is reading, as well as what we think about it. While it is not quite as immediate or visually appealing as simply putting in a sticky style note right on a webpage, it does help us as academics to keep our thoughts organized.

Conclusion (or, Why I Annotate Texts)

So, there you have it. I choose to annotate when I think that a text — web page, article, book, YouTube video, whatever — will be useful for me in my writing and thinking. This means that the item must have practical value for me both in the moment as well as in the future, which is why I think that most people annotate. Additionally, I choose to annotate something when it is worth my time to enter it into Zotero because, eventually, I will be writing and will want to use the features of this program that allow me to instantly and easily insert a reference into Word. If I am at my computer reading with Zotero open, I annotate in one manner. If I am reading a paper book, I do it another way.

I know this is where I differ from some other edubloggers who really value Evernote, Diigo, or related social bookmarking and notebook tools. I understand and respect the reasons why they choose their tools. For me, as an academic, citation is the currency of argument writing. And, there is no way I can keep up on all the changes in MLA, APA, Chicago and more. Zotero has saved me hours, days, of my professional life by keeping my citations organized and, then when I need them, available at the click of a mouse. No other free and open source tool, at least no tool to my knowledge, allows me the kinds of freedom as a reader and writer.

So, if it is worth annotating, it is worth taking the time to put in Zotero.

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