The end of EndNote?

You’ve wrangled that paper to a plausible conclusion — a bit of sleep is just around the corner — but hold on, not so fast, you’re Sisyphus after all. Citation formatting is a special curse, the inane labor at the end of hard work that holds all your effort hostage. Never does it seem less true that it’s the thought that counts.

The best portrait of this frustration that I know is Louis Menand’s New Yorker article from three years back, “The End Matter; The Nightmare of Citation.” (And no, I won’t properly cite it.) Menand mobilizes here a full sense of the tyranny that must be endured in the construction of endnotes —

Every error is an error of substance, a betrayal of ignorance and inexperience, the academic equivalent of the double dribble. That the decorums of citation are the arbitrary residue of ancient pedantries whose raisons d’etre are long past reconstructing does not reduce the penalties for nonconformity.

Surely technology should free us from such tiresome finish-line ambushes. And yet, as Menand observes,

The notion that the personal computer has eliminated the bone-crushing inefficiency of the typewriter, and turned composing The End Matter into a drive in the word-processing park, belongs to the myth that all work on a computer is “fun”-one of the Digital Age’s cruellest jokes.

Microsoft Word, as Menand observes, is too often a baffling mess when it comes to foot/endnote generation, plaguing you with random formatting and automatically generated annoyances. Too many options: the exhauster citer just wants to be faultless and to be done.

EndNote — which is a plug-in in my version of MS Word — might seem to be a lifesaver. Indeed, many of us have been happy to sit through earnest training in this and similar tools, entranced by the promise of metadata pulled down from a network, stored in a local database, and spit back out, effortlessly, into formatted endnotes. Oh, you wanted APA 5th, not Turabian? Hold on just a sec – (click, click) – here you go! Choose a style, any style: here are 1012 to choose from!

And yet, in my personal experience, EndNote endnotes are chock full of flaws. I’m not here to assign blame — maybe it was an incomplete OPAC record, maybe the library filter was off, maybe EndNote dropped a field — at the end of the day (rather, the night), citations are liable to look like nothing in that overstuffed, unloved red style manual (which is all but impervious, anyway, to the need to cite digital sources). Back to fixing, fretting, fudging. Only EndNote is liable to overwrite your corrections: surprise!

And yet the dream of escaping such frustrations through technology won’t die — and shouldn’t. It seems only fair that our Babylonian predicaments be ameliorated, at least somewhat, by computers–our vast interconnected ever-churning never-complaining prostheses.

George Mason’s Center for History & New Media (a seemingly ever-inventive group) has had a promising tool chugging down the pike for some time that offers a new glimmer of hope. It manages citations and other research information in a web environment. When first I heard about it , they were calling this tool Firefox Scholar – now it’s been rebranded to Zotero: a term loosely based on the Albanian word for acquiring/mastering. Whatever – let’s trust that this promising project will prove to be less obscure than such an etymology.

From what I can tell from the description of Zotero, bennies include:

  • Ability to capture & store PDFs, files, images, links, web pages in a browser platform.
  • A range of organization options, including folders & tagging & ‘smart’ collections.
  • iTunes-like interface.
  • Spotlight-like search-as-you-type.

…and, most relevant here:

  • Ability to sniff out a citation on a web page & capture it to your library
  • Citation export.

Zotero works with Firefox to sense when you are visiting a page with full bibliographic data (like an OPAC) and offers a little book icon; click it, and citation material comes flying into your computer.

Zotero in a Firefox browser bar

Since suddenly there’s a profusion of browser-based store-organize-share tools (SOS?) for scholars, Zotero will be all the more valuable if it can be jiggered to play with academic social software like Connotea or the aforeglimpsed CiteULike – and, while we’re dreaming, if it can feed stored items into networked repositories. Since it’s free and open source, one can imagine any kind of evolution for this “next generation research tool.”

Will researching and citing on the web actually get a little easier? We’ll see – Zotero is in private beta now, but should be in public beta by the end of the month.

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