Bento is dead, long live Zotero

I'm sure that most of you have heard by now that Filemaker has announced that it will stop selling Bento at the end of September, although the company will continue to provide technical support through the end of July 2014.

At first I was devastated....but then reason set in.  Much as I love its simplicity and elegant user interface, Bento is still an imperfect product.  I've written about its shortcomings before, but one issue was becoming more than an annoyance:  Bento is clearly not designed for actively recording data while you are searching on the internet.  You can't resize the screen to transcribe data directly into Bento with a website open at the same time.  Switching back and forth between the two screens is just too clunky for me, and I found myself frequently losing data in the process.

I've been trying to use Evernote to capture sources, but it is a bit too open-ended for me -- I still need to see my data in a spreadsheet!  Then it dawned on me.  Genealogists aren't the only people who need to track their research.... so rather than try to invent the wheel, why not look at research management tools.  There are several interesting programs designed for academic researchers out there, but I needed one that would work on a Mac (and "free" would be a nice price point) -- which led me to Zotero.

So far, I love it!  

Zotero is designed for capturing bibliographic information, and it works automatically on websites that are cataloged, such as Google Books, Chronicling America, etc.  On these kind of sites, Zotero automatically grabs a .pdf copy of the data, as well as a complete citation for the source.  The right panel below is an example of a news article I found on Chronicling America, and shows what I got from one click on the Zotero bookmarklet:

Zotero works just fine on other websites such as Ancestry or FamilySearch, but you have to add the citation details manually.  It is very easy to add a link or a snapshot of the page to your record, as well as to add a transcript or other notes.  The screen re-sizes easily so I can have both Zotero and my data open at the same time making it very easy to transcribe data or make notes.  I downloaded a standalone desktop program in addition to the cloud-based version, so I have my data with me at all times. 

Now in case you are thinking this is just a citation manager, Zotero can also serve most of the functions of a relational database.  As an old-school database aficionado, I first had to wrap my mind around the fact that tags are the new way to organize and relate your data, replacing most traditional database structures.  For each source I enter in Zotero, I add a tag that relates this source to other information I am tracking.  Tags might include the names of related individuals, place names, or category of evidence.  When I later filter by tag, only those sources that match the filter are returned.  Of course, you have to think hard about the tags you use and come up with your own rules so the tags you use are meaningful to you.  But in the end it is much more streamlined and efficient, allowing you to focus on your research rather than fussing about how it is entered in the database.

 Zotero offers free online data storage for the first 300 MB, and goes up in increments after that (2 GB is $20/year, 6 GB is $60, etc.)  I'm still on the fence about that -- I'll have to see if I want to migrate all my sources to Zotero or if I will use it in conjunction with another solution.  More on this later, of course, but for now, I've got to go back to my research -- and my shiny new workflow.  I'm so happy!