Using Zotero with the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) style

This is in response to the current requests for support for the SBL style on the "What other citation formats...?" thread. I use Zotero for a PhD thesis which I am formatting according to the SBL stylesheet.

I'm glad to see other interest in Zotero among biblical scholars. I think that Zotero will enjoy particularly wide adoption among biblical scholars and those in related disciplines once it is stable from their point of view (everyone uses Endnote, but few love it). Here my own comments and questions:

Since SBL is a Chicago Manual of Style variant, do any of you who requested SBL support have a list of things you don't see in Zotero's Chicago support that you need for your SBL-formatted documents? I haven't yet found differences between the two style guides which would need to be reflected in citation style support. I would love to make a list of any that exist, so that we can make a SBL tweak to the Chicago Style if needed, but we may find we are well served by Zotero's Chicago style. It's what I use so far.

It is true that biblical scholars, like classicists, historians and others in the humanities tend to need fairly full support for relational associations between bibliographic items which have never been really provided by any bibliographic management tool (and which are still to come in Zotero). This would enable good robust support for things like:

(1) the ability to cite the full history of a book that has gone through multiple editions
(2) citing the original publication information of a translated volume
(3) easy management of things like collections of articles--the ability to manage bibliographic information on the containing volume in a single place.
(4) Generally better management of things like journal articles reprinted in collections, books in multi-volume sets, etc.

Such a relational data model (and corresponding support in the GUI and Citation output mechanism) is on the horizon for Zotero. In fact (as I understand) it was one of the motivations for 'a new solution' to the problem of bibliographic management in the first place.

The full citation of things like (1, 2, and 4, above) is discretionary, and depends on the needs of the piece you are working on. So far in my thesis, I've not felt compelled to use them. 95% of the time, what I really need is support for the big three: Books, Articles, Book Sections (Zotero's term for an item in a bound collection). Zotero does these to the Chicago/SBL spec already (as well as Theses, conference papers, and all of the old standbys). And of course you can store all manner of information about such items for manual insertion later as required. The dev branch of Zotero's Word plugin has just added support for more kinds of manual tweaking of citations and bibliographic references. We should see these in the public releases soon.

However, for a good bibliographic solution, we ultimately need support for all four items above (and similar cases where the relationship of one published item to another needs expressing). One of the design goals of CSL (the citation style engine which Zotero uses) is to finally be able to really do these things right.
The aim is that we eventually won't have to tailor the bibliographic information we present to the constraints of our bibliographic software.

For good Chicago/SBL support, we also need the ability to use and manage lists of abbreviations, both for Journals and Series.

What I do now. The following uses Zotero to store and output citation information, but I paste it manually into the document. It is less automated than a full autocite solution, but gives me complete control over the output, since citations are editable as regular text. Several improvements have recently been made to the development branch of the Word plugin, so I may soon be able to switch to it (and automate some of this), but I'm playing careful for now.

(1) Set Zotero's "Preferences/Export/Default Export format" to "Chicago Manual of Style (Note without bibliography)". This is how to get full citation information in the footnotes.
(2) Create a new Collection in Zotero's left pane. Call it something like "Used in [DocumentName]"
(3) When you want to cite an item in your database, select the item you want to cite in Zotero, and use Quick Copy to get your footnote. (SHIFT-CTRL-C)
(4) As you cite each item, or sometime before your final draft, add all cited items to your "Used in____" collection. Right click the collection and select "Create bibliography from collection ..." This time select "CMS (note WITH bibliography). It's a little confusing, but SBL style wants full bibliographic information in the first footnote as well as in the bibliography, and that's how you get it.

Limitations and issues:
(a) At the moment you either have create short citations manually from long citations (deleting the publisher name, place, date; shortening the title manually) or switch your default output to "CMS (with bibliography)" manually--and then back for your next long citation. I delete the information manually. This is noted on one of the ticket items on the development list, but it's not yet clear if the developers consider it worth addressing. It would require another keyboard shortcut (and context menu item) to 'create short citation.'
(b) There is a bug which auto-numbers the footnote citation. It is on the list to be fixed, and may be fixed on the dev branch already. For the moment I manually un-number and un-indent in the word processor after pasting.
(c) Zotero imports the URL of the source database record when importing from several datasources (including ATLA via EBSCOhost), which it probably shouldn't. At any rate it shows up in the citation. This has been discussed in the forums, and will certainly be sorted out somehow. I have started just deleting the URL from Zotero's records manually, but you can also keep it and delete it after you paste.
(d) Zotero automatically (and very intelligently) "Title Cases" titles from many sources when importing. The algorithm is very good, but if you are working with many foreign language items (which SBL specifies should only capitalize "the first letter of the title and of any words which would normally be capitalized in that language") it's better to turn off automatic title casing, and apply it manually to English titles later (via a right click on the title). To turn it off you have to change a hidden preference in Firefox. Type about:config in the URL bar and change 'extensions.zotero.captitalizeTitles' to false.

If you have other comments, or If you can think of more requirements for SBL-styled documents (and particularly variants from Chicago), post them here.
  • Sorry for the length of the above post. With hardly any formatting, it's a bit of a slog to make it through. I'd be keen to hear reports of others trying to use Zotero for SBL-styled documents using Zotero's Chicago style. It looks as if I may be able to abandon Quick Copy for the Word plugin very soon, which will be nice.
  • Also note the limitation to Zotero's (/CSL's) automated Chicago support mentioned in this thread. The SBL stylebook doesn't specify this case particularly, but one would assume it follows Chicago.
    This does raise the question of how strictly one needs to follow the published style guide. The answer will of course be "as strictly as the immediate recipients of your work want you to." In my case (a PhD thesis in the UK), the department couldn't care less, so I'm fine. But certainly some publishers would think differently.

    Note that this is only a limitation of Zotero's automated support of Chicago via the Word plugin. If you use quick-copy, you will be manually creating short citations from long ones anyway, so you don't have the logistical problem that the poster mentions.
  • Scott, thanks for this it is very helpful. I have updated your instructions and posted them on my blog (, in the hopes that more Biblical Scholars find and use Zotero.
  • PS, one item type that it would be really useful to have available is the "book review", if one wants to reference a review of another work as far as I can see currently one has to use a workaround.
  • Tim: very nice. I was hoping someone would introduce the Biblical Studies blog-reading community to Zotero at some point, and to do it less verbosely and with better formatting than I did above. I especially like the screencast.
  • I've noticed that in the SBL style, Zotero does not include the volume number in the bibliography. See below. The first entry is correct; the second is how Zotero displays it.

    Aune, David E. “Excursus 4B: Hymns in Revelation.” Pages 314–17 in Revelation 1–5. Word Biblical Commentary 52. Dallas: Word, 1997.

    Aune, David E. “Excursus 4B: Hymns in Revelation.” Pages 314–17 in Revelation 1–5. Word Biblical Commentary. Dallas: Word, 1997.
  • It doesn't include the volume number in footnotes, either. Does anyone have a fix for this?
  • I would like to revive this post because I am starting to use the SBL style (not the CMS style, as scot recommends above).

    To respond to anaselli and mbrand, the current SBL style does handle series numbers. In your Zotero entry, "Word Biblical Commentary" (or "WBC") should be in the Series field and the number in the Series Number field. It should not be in the Volume field.

    Following that practice, the preview pane shows the following:

    Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1–50 (WBC 19; Waco, TX: Word, 1983), 34.

    Craigie, Peter C. Psalms 1–50. WBC 19. Waco, TX: Word, 1983.

    The same is true for book sections, as you seem to have attempted to format the excursus in Aune's commentary. The current SBL style produces the following (in an analogous entry):

    M. M. Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist; University of Texas Press Slavic Series 1; Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 259–422.

    Bakhtin, M. M. “Discourse in the Novel.” Pages 259–422 in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. University of Texas Press Slavic Series 1. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
  • Some of my colleagues and I are new on the scene of using SBL in Zotero and I hope this dialogue can be resurrected.

    We are having trouble getting rid of periods for multiple citations. We've learned not to write in the "field" of the reference, but the program still insists on putting a period after every reference, even when there are multiple references in a single footnote, and there are page numbers that follow the automatically inserted footnote. Any thoughts?
  • The recommendation is in general to add multiple citations using the same citation dialog and to use prefix and suffix for text between them.

    If that doesn't work for you, you'd have to modify the style. You can find discussions of this (mostly referring to Chicago) on various places here in the forum. It's not hard.
  • please add websites specifically not webpage.
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