My zotero assigment

Inspired by what many others are up to in their classes (and in particular, Prof. Fernsebner; but see also Brian Croxall), I had my first year seminar students use Zotero to create a group library related to digital history & the local history of the Ottawa region. Below are the instructions I gave them:

Add 5 references to your personal zotero library with annotations; transfer those references to our zotero group online bibliography.

  1. Download and install Zotero in Firefox.  If you do not have Firefox installed on your machine, click on the Firefox link to obtain it. It’s free!
  2. Review the help videos for zotero on our course website, and on the Zotero main page.
  3. Sign-up for Zotero Groups at
  4. Search Groups for ‘1405a-digital-history’. Click on ‘Join Group’. This will send me a short note saying that you wish to join the group. Once I ‘approve’, you’ll have a new ‘group library’ on your ‘collections’ screen on the Zotero interface in Firefox. At the top you’ll see ‘my library’. To copy an item from one collection to the other, find the item you want; click and drag it to the other folder.
  5. Now, find some resources/references concerning digital history, and the history of Ottawa & the Ottawa Valley / Outaouais! You should begin by asking yourself – what aspects of this course have I found most interesting so far? Key words might be things like ‘digital history’; ‘digital humanities’; ‘history GIS’; ‘serious games’… and so on.  Look at the ‘readings’ section of our course website. Did you know that Google allows you to search for similar resources? Try it out: go to, click ‘advanced search’, click ‘more’ and put the link in the ‘page-specific tools’ box.
  6. Collect your resource, and annotate it by clicking on the ‘Notes’ tab in the zotero interface. Things to think about when creating your notes:
    • Who wrote this? Is this person credible (ie, do they work for a reputable institution? Are they well-known? What do others say about this person? Can you even find the person’s name?)
    • When was this published or posted? Was it in response to some wider current in society? (for instance, something published on terrorism in October 2001 might have a very different tone/point of view than something published in August 2001)
    • What kind of historical questions or problems could this source be useful for?
    • Are there any obvious flaws in this resource?
  7. Tag the resource using descriptive labels, under the ‘tags’ tab. (This will allow you to search and create subcollections based on these labels. Use as many as you’d like.)
  8. Transfer your citations to our group library.
  9. IF SOMEONE ELSE has already uploaded a source that you wished to contribute, please find a different source. So you’re better off completing this assignment ahead of time, rather than at the last minute.

And here is the rubric I’ve used to grade their submissions to the group library:

Zotero Group Library Joined? No (no points) Yes (1 point)
# of unique items added to the group library One or two (1 point) Three or four (2 points) Five items (4 points)
Quality of annotations (see instructions, #6) A random assortment, with no obvious connection to the course demonstrated or little reflection on utility (1 point) Some randomness, but also some awareness of why the sources are valuable, and in what way (3 points) Resource obviously connected to the class, and annotations show reflection on the utility or appropriateness of the resource (4 points)
Annotations are tagged with descriptive labels No tags (0 points) One or two resources are tagged (.25 points) Three or four resources are tagged (.5 points) All five resources are tagged (1 point)

So far, so good. But one thing I didn’t count on, was that I can’t search by user-who-added-items in the group library. This has been a major time sink, in that regard. I have to click through each record in the group’s library page on the web, noting the resource, who created it, and when (since some students appeared to have added to what others submitted).

So while overall I’m happy with how this assignment panned out – I wanted them to learn to use Zotero, and in terms of the basics, that’s what they’ve achieved – I think I could’ve planned this out better.  Aside from the technical difficulties in retrieving what each student submitted, there’s the more important question of whether or not my rubric does what I wanted it to do. And there I think it falls down – “connection to the course” should’ve been defined a wee bit more rigorously, for instance.  I was imagining ‘connection’ meaning, a connection with the issues raised in our readings – but many students simply took that to mean, ‘he talked about enigma machines once, so this website on the mechanics of the enigma machine therefore is a good resource to collect for digital history’. Well maybe it is, maybe it isn’t: but since I didn’t spell out that I wanted them to spell out the connections… well my bad.

So. A good assignment to teach a useful skill, but as for fostering anything deeper, I think my instructions & rubric let me down. Lesson learned.

One thought on “My zotero assigment

  1. Hi Shawn, just a thought – maybe Delicious would be a tool to use that would allow you to see items by user in addition to the ones that are in your group network? Delicious is powerful and easy to use – it’s possible to use the “notes” field to do the kind of annotations you are looking for there. Anyway, just a thought – I’m a huge fan of Delicious and am really impressed at how it can be used for very simple things, but also for some pretty complex stuff, too. :-)

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