Using Zotero to Build Bibliographies: Why and How? (2018; updated 2023)

This is a quick introduction to using Zotero, a bibliographic tool that is unique and powerful because it allows for individual and collaborative work. Its main audience is intermediate- and graduate-level university students. I created this introduction originally for Gary Waite and his graduate students at the University of New Brunswick at Fredericton. This is background for the example later in this page. Suggestions for improving this introduction to Zotero are welcome.

What is Zotero?

Zotero is program for making digital bibliographies. The program is created by the Mozilla Corporation, the same group that makes the Firefox web browser. You can learn more about Zotero at the program website (

Zotero [zoh-TAIR-oh] is a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources.

— From the Zotero website*

How can Zotero help you with your research?

Once you learn how to use Zotero (or any other bibliographic programs), you will be able to build fairly extensive bibliographic overviews of research topics so that you can become familiar with the community of research (a.k.a., the secondary sources, or the historiography) for that topic much more quickly and efficiently. If you are going to find your own voice as a researcher, you have to first have a good overview of the major contributions in your community of research. After all, you can’t say something new unless you know what the state of established knowledge and debate is.

Why use Zotero to make bibliographies?

Programs like RefWorks and EndNote are alternatives to Zotero. Maybe you know some others and have a favorite? I recommend Zotero because it is a free** program that is relatively easy to use and very powerful. With Zotero you can:

  • Collect bibliographic entries from your library’s catalog and databases, or from other catalogs and databases that you can access;
    • Also attach pdf copies of journal articles to the matching entry for easy access;
  • Organize your titles into folders and sub-folders to make your research more manageable;
  • Produce a printable bibliography from any completed folder in seconds;
  • Use an add-on to coordinate your bibliography with notes in wordprocessor documents;
  • Share your folders across several of your own devices using cloud storage;
  • Create collaborative bibliographies with research team members.

Few if any other programs allow you to do all of these tasks. In short, the advantage of Zotero is not only that you can use it to build your own bibliographies to learn about other communities of research, but you can also work with other scholars to build your own research communities.

How to set up Zotero on your computer


If you have already been working with an older version of Zotero for Firefox, you will probably have to update your program using the instructions below. The reason is that Mozilla has changed the newer version to act as a standalone program, regardless of the browser you use. For more details, see this information page, entitled “A Unified Zotero Experience”.

Note that the following instructions guide you in the installation of Zotero 5.0, the latest version of the program (early 2018)

  1. Visit the Zotero website at
  2. Register for a Zotero account (see the top right-hand corner of the page).
    • An account is necessary so that you can backup your bibliographies and collaborate with others.
  3. Return to the main Zotero page, and then select the “Download Now” option.
    • Download and install the version of Zotero for your machine.
    • Then download and install the version of the Zotero Connector for your browser (options are Firefox, Chrome and Safari).
  4. Start up Zotero, go to Preferences in the program menu, and make sure that your link your Zotero account.
    • Check the other Preferences; an important consideration is the amount of storage you have available; free accounts allow for limited storage (300 MB), so you may wish to avoid downloading any PDF files associated with journal articles; in this case, uncheck the appropriate option in the General menu
  5. To begin using Zotero, make sure that your Zotero program is open.
    • Then open a library search page in the browser for which you have installed the Zotero Connector.
    • You can begin searching for titles to add to your Zotero database.
      • Before adding any titles, make sure that you have created and highlighted the Zotero folder into which you would like to add the titles.

For a further introduction to using Zotero, go to the official documentation page at and, or to the Zotero help page of the Cornell University Library.

Below is a Zotero how-to video

Creating a bibliography of the works of Prof. Gary Waite, Amsterdamnified’s Principal Investigator, from Brock University’s library resources

  1. Starting up Zotero;
  2. Creating a new group library at;
  3. Syncing Zotero so that the new library appears on my computer;
  4. Selecting the new library in Zotero;
  5. Creating a new folder (“Waite, Gary”) in the library;
  6. Running a library catalog search for “Waite, Gary” and downloading the resources;
  7. Running a library database (JSTOR) search for “Waite, Gary” and downloading the resources;
  8. Editing the Zotero records to make sure the outputs will be accurate;
  9. Adding notes (or tags) to the Zotero records;
  10. Selecting all of the resources in the folder;
  11. Creating an exportable bibliography to print in Word;
  12. Review the output and edit the Zotero records further as needed.

To view the video in full-screen mode, you may have to select this link ( and then expand the page.

* NOTE: While I am happy to advertise for Zotero because I find it very helpful in my research and teaching, I have received no funding, swag, or other bonuses from the company. I have no links to the Mozilla Corporation or the Zotero team, except as a user of their products.

** NOTE: Zotero is free as long as you use it only to manage small collections of data. See the Zotero website for more details on current policies and costs.