Organizing Genealogy Documents With The Help Of Zotero

Title image-4There are many ways to organize your genealogy and, in most cases, your approach is going to evolve and change over time. Mine certainly has. Today I use three primary pieces of software, a relationship-based genealogy software application, Scrivener and Zotero.

Relationship-Based Software

Most genealogy software applications are relationship-based. In other words, people are added by their relationships with each other. These apps are based primarily on traditional paper family group sheets and pedigree charts. Three of the best known are Family Tree Maker, Legacy Family Tree, and RootsMagic. The apps allow you to add more information than you could on a piece of paper but they do have their limitations. One of the biggest is actually writing the family stories, case studies, and proof arguments. If I am writing about a family and it includes multiple generations across several lines, I have to duplicate that story on every person’s page. This is where the second piece of software comes in that I use.


Scrivener is a writing application. Think word processor on steroids. It was developed for authors as a way to keep all their research, character development, and the manuscript together. I use Scrivener for my research questions, case studies and writing the family stories. I create a different Scrivener for each question I am trying to answer or story I am trying to write.

The focus of this post is how I use Zotero to keep track of everything, to tie it all together.


Zotero’s website describes it as “…a free, open-source research tool that helps you collect, organize and analyze research…” “Zotero includes the best parts of older reference manager software — the ability to store author, title, and publication fields and to export that information as formatted references…”

First and foremost Zotero helps you to collect, organize and analyze research and oh yeah it can export that information as a formatted reference. Reference manager software is often referred to as citation managers. A Google search for citation managers will include Zotero. To date, no one has been able to come up with templates/citation managers that can automatically format all Evidence Explained Style citations (EE), the standard citation style used in genealogy. So forget about that ability. For now, if you want EE style citations you are going to be writing them yourself.

If Zotero can’t format an EE style citation what can the application do for me?

Glad you asked. It can collect all or most of the information you will need to write an EE style citation with the click of a mouse. But it’s power resides in all the other things it can do. It can help you find, track and analyze your research.


Last year when I was writing the blog post “Using The Argyle Patent Documents to Identify the Parents of Catherine McArthur (ca. 1721—after June 1797) and her brother Duncan McArthur (ca. 1727—1 February 1813)” I had one heck of a time trying to locate all the information I needed to write the blog. Bits and pieces were all over the place. Digital images were on my computer, others were still on a portable hard drive. Notes about the sources were on pieces of paper stuck inside of notebooks. Information was in various places in my relationship based software. Other information was in emails to various archives. More information was in several of my New York books. I hadn’t started a Scrivener with the question until I started writing the blog post. Often, I would find myself asking questions like: I know that information was in a book but which one? Where did I find that law about land grants? Didn’t he witness so and so’s will?

Once I had completed the blog post, I found myself once again thinking. There has to be a better way? A short time later I discovered Donna Cox Baker’s book Zotero for Genealogy 

I purchased the PDF version and read it in an afternoon. Within a few days, I downloaded Zotero and the Zotero connector for Google Chrome. The connector is where the magic begins. It is what allows you to add information into Zotero from just about any website on the Internet with a mouse click. That information is what you will need to write EE style citations.

The connector shines with online library catalogs like WorldCat, Internet Archive, and Hathi Trust Digital Library These catalogs contain the metadata that Zotero uses to autofill predetermined fields in Zotero. Like the title, author, publisher information, publication date, and the date you added the information.

Zotero will autofill information from websites like Ancestry, FamilySearch, FindMyPast and MyHeritage but more than likely you will need to copy and paste a portion of the information you will need to write a citation.

Adding Books

Zotero comes preloaded with 14 citation styles. More are available from the Zotero website. The style you choose will determine what information is gathered for a particular Item Type. The style I use is The Chicago Manual of Style 17th edition (full note). This style closely resembles EE thus allowing you to grab the information you need for an EE style citation.

To get a feel for how Zotero and the connector worked I started with my genealogy library of over 300 books. One of the books in my library is the History of Washington County, New York: with illustrations and biographical sketches: some of its prominent men and pioneers. I own a reprint from 1991 printed by Heart of the Lakes Publishing company.

Once I located the book in an online catalog it is a simple matter of clicking on the connector in my browser and the metadata is automatically added to Zotero.

WorldCat 1Notice that the connector in the upper right is a book. The connectors icon changes depending on the metadata on the webpage.

The Zotero application needs to be open when you are adding items. It will add the item to the main library. If you are in another collection/folder the item will be added to that collection and to the main library. The main library is where items reside. When an item is added to a collection/folder that version of the item is a virtual copy of the one in the main library.  The item can be placed in multiple collections/folders but will always appear in the main library.

Below is what you will see in Zotero after you click on the connector for the book that is being added. The right-hand pane contains the metadata from the

WorldCat 2
webpage. It contains all the information needed to complete an EE citation. The only thing missing would be the page numbers used for an assertion.

I chose this book for this example because it is a reprint of a book that is out of copyright. The first edition can be found in its entirety at Internet Archive  The image below shows the page when you have the connector in your browser. Notice that the connector will allow you to add it to Zotero.

Internet Archive 1
If you right-click on the connector a list of options will be displayed. Allowing you to choose how you want to add the book.

Internet Archive 1a

If you select one of the Web Page options the icon in Zotero will be for a Web Page instead of a Book. The information imported will be different than if you selected to import with Save to Zotero (Internet Archive) option. Second image.

Internet Archive 1b

Book option.

Internet Archive 1c

Instead of adding a second item for basically the same book I chose to add a link to my reprint entry.

Internet Archive 1e

When you click on Attach link to URI a popup appears. Simply copy the link and add a title if you chose to.

Internet Archive 2a

Finished link.
Internet Archive 2
If I click on the link it will open a browser to the online version of the book.

If you have downloaded a copy of the book you can choose Attach Link to File navigate to the file on your computer and select the file.
Internet Archive 2b

Attaching PDF’s gives you a whole new set of options. One is having notes that you created in the PDF show up as searchable notes in Zotero. Zotero for Genealogy has an in-depth discussion on how to do this.

Adding a Current Publication

Just recently I purchased Advanced Genetic Genealogy: Techniques and Case Studies. I found the book in WorldCat adding it using the steps above. With current books, web sites like Barnes and Nobel and Amazon have summaries of the book and occasionally you will find a table of contents. If they do I will copy and paste the summaries or table of contents into the Abstract field in the entry. In the case of this book the editor, Debbie Wayne Parker posted a “news release” on her blog, Deb’s Delvings in Genealogy  Her post on 23 May 2019 contains a detailed version of the summary found on Amazon and Barnes and Nobel. I simply copied and pasted Debbie’s “news release” into the Abstract field making it searchable inside Zotero.

Using the above methods I was able to add 300 books into Zotero in a matter of days. By adding summaries, table of contents and tags to the entries I now can search my library quickly and efficiently.

Adding Items Without Using the Connector

Many years ago I decided to store as much of my genealogy digitally as was possible. I only keep paper copies of original documents and documents that are not available online. I do scan all of my documents.

I needed a way to organize all these images and PDF’s. At first, I tried to file them by families that soon became impossible. I ended up with multiple copies of the same document. I finally settled on a hybrid system using location-based files and some family files. The location-based files mimic the FamilySearch catalog.

My main folder is called Genealogy. Within that folder are folders for various countries, subjects, and some surname type files. Most country folders contain various sub-folders. The United States folder contains state folders and folders for various federal records.

Genealogy Folder

Depending the amount of information from a particular state a state folder can contain multiple folders from BMD’s (birth, marriages & deaths), church records, specific county records, court records, land records, newspapers, tax records, etcetera. Depending on the number of items there may be additional subfolders inside each of these categories.

New York

One of the “worst” is the Death folder for Minnesota. There are 954 files in 35 folders.

Minnesota Deaths

A disadvantage to this filing method is that the records for one individual are more likely than not to be in numerous places. This is where Zotero comes to the rescue.

Within Zotero, there are several ways to relate items to each other or to group them. You only need to add an item once for it to be in your library. One option would be to create a collection/folder for an individual and then add all items relating to that individual to the collection/folder. Another method is to use the related feature.

It took me a while of playing to come up with how I wanted to add various types of records. Did I want to follow the basic setup on the computer? Or did I want to use individual collections/folders? I finally decided that I would follow the basic setup on the computer but I would use the related feature to tie an individual’s records together.

Like most genealogists, I have lines that stayed in the same location for long periods of time. Even if they didn’t a single-family would have multiple records in the same church, civil register or recordset.

Computer File 1

As you can see my Austria folder contains folders with the Family History Library (FHL) microfilm numbers. These FHL microfilm folders often contain entire rolls of microfilm that were scanned while in Salt Lake City. Within the FHL microfilm folders there maybe sub-folders divided by specific registers.

In Zotero, I choose Book as the item type for each register. This way there is only one entry for the entire register and each individual sacramental entry is linked to its register. Each link in the register will open the image for that record stored on my computer.

Zotero 3

My naming convention for events in Zotero is different from the naming convention for images filed on my hard drive. When I am scanning FHL microfilm I am often scanning the entire roll. The naming convention typically is labeled by its microfilm number including item number and page or frame number.

In Zotero, the current convention for these entries is Event Type, Surname, Given Name, Database ID. With DIRECT LINE added to those individuals who are my direct line. The database ID numbers are generated by my genealogy software. I decided to add these numbers to facilitate searches in Zotero. But have not completely committed to them. One of the main reasons is they are subject to change if something damages my databases or I change which software I am using. I could mitigate these problems if I manually add them as a separate fact.

After I have added a specific register I am now ready to link images to that register.  Once the link is added I can add all kinds of information about that image. Below is the link to Johann Aloys Gestach. He is my 2x great-grandfather.

Zotero 4

The first thing I have been doing is going into my relationship-based genealogy software where I have citations already written. I copy and paste them into the note section. I also add any transcriptions or translations that I might want or any other notes. The first time I found this baptism was when I was in Augsburg, Austria at the Archiv des Bistum Augsburg (Archive of the diocese of Augsburg.)  Because of the cost I did not print copies of the baptism but made transcriptions that included book and page numbers this made it much easier to find the same page on the FHL microfilm. Since I knew the Signature numbers from my notes I added those numbers in my notes for the image.

The Related Function

Close up of the upper right side.

Zotero 6

The top line is the name of the link using the naming convention for Zotero. The filename is self-explanatory. Modified gives me the date and time that I linked this image. Indexed has to do with if the file has been indexed. Images are not indexed. The next line is the Related entry. The last line is Tags. If you use tags and add them they will appear here.

Clicking to the right of the word Related brings up the following:

Zotero 6a

If you click on Add another popup appears that allows you to navigate anywhere in your library and relate/link a file to this entry. Click on the file and it will appear in the dropdown list of related items.

Zotero 6b

I can click on any document in the related list and I am taken to that entry.

I am still working at entering all of my digitized material into Zotero. But I can see the advantage of having it all in there. New research is added to Zotero as soon as I find it. I may not write an EE citation until later but I make sure I have all the information I need. All my notes about that document and any analysis go right into Zotero. No more word documents not attached to the file. No more slips of paper that may get lost.

Even though Zotero is free if you are interested I would strongly recommend the book Zotero for Genealogy. Donna includes information about how to create to-do lists, use PDF’s and many more ways to use Zotero. She also includes a set of exercises with access to a dataset to help you familiarize yourself with the program. 

Teresa (fhtess65) has a blog writing my past where she wrote about how she uses Zotero on newspaper sites. It is very informative. You can find her post here.

In addition to Donna’s book, you can find her blog posts about Zotero here.

Link to using OneNote with Zotero


12 thoughts on “Organizing Genealogy Documents With The Help Of Zotero

  1. Zotero sounds incredibly complex! Does it work with a Mac? And, the “connector” that sounds so useful but with Chrome—is there a Mac version also? Your explanation is wonderfully complete. I will have to check it out. So far I’ve been using Evernote and Reunion, which I love, but neither makes citations—yes, there is a place for them in Reunion and it walks you through, allowing suggesting to you any item imaginable (book, title, author, page numbers, website, etc, plus custom items).


    1. agilchrest

      Yes there is a Mac version. There is also connectors for Fixfox and Safari. If you go to the Zotero site
      scroll down and other platforms and browsers are available.

      It is not as complex as it seems. Part of the reason why it seems complex has more to do with all the options. I did the exercises in Donna’s book and felt confident to go and play.


  2. The proof is in the pudding. Your work is always interesting and gets its excellence from dedication and artistic presentation, on top of this marvelous organization. The latter can be assumed a bit from this blueprint – says me, who is still in the dark ages with no apps other than excel and my head. Citations have been a particular migraine. Deep thanks for sharing.


    1. agilchrest

      Marilee, I am guessing all of your tree information is in Excel? If you like using Excel for viewing your tree and relationships than I would leave it there. Even though Zotero will export citations and uses a citation style for how it grabs information for me it really is more for organizing all the bits and bobs. Your books, photographs, documents, notes. thoughts about a source. It always frustrated me when I would find a document online do some analysis and make a number of conclusions. All of that would all be in a word doc or on a piece of paper and not attached to the document.

      With Zotero, I can add the document source information with one click of the mouse. Either add a separate note or depending on how I added the document there may already be a note section. Type in all my thoughts and it all stays together. Hope this makes sense.


      1. Perfect sense and the post woke me up. Yes, mine are primarily Excel – so annotated within their boxes to bear no resemblance to the beauties I’d have produced for work. They don’t function as XL now, such that only I can read them. Time to get someone to help clean up my act.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. agilchrest

        I have been using Family Tree Maker for years, but have friends who swear by Legacy. I also know some who use TNG (The Next Generation of Website Building software) They will run it on their computer with server software installed.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks so much for the mention! I learned a few things from reading your post 🙂 Zotero is so flexible – one of the reasons I love it so much. I just wish the Back-up process was a little less time-consuming. But that is very much a first world problem…


  4. Pingback: How OneNote Solved My Issue Of Getting Snapshots of Webpages and E-mail’s Quickly Into Zotero – Renaissance Ann

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