Zotero and Scribe (for historians especially)

Dear Dan and All,

I've been using another great CHNM product called Scribe for several months now. To a much more limited extent I've been using Zotero as well. As a notetaking and outlining tool (especially for historians), Scribe is still a much better tool. I understand that no further updates are planned for Scribe after version 3.3 is released. Scribe's developer, Elena Razlogova has kindly assured the Scribe community that the program will continue to be supported. But it would also be nice to hear from the Zotero development team. Will significant efforts be made to help users of Scribe make the transition to Zotero (especially in terms of importing notes, keywords, etc.)? Will Zotero soon feature the functions (such as formatted notes, author cards, outlining capabilities and the specific bibliographic information needed by historians) that distinguish Scribe?

We're all in your debt for creating these terrific programs. Thank you in advance for whatever guidance you can provide.

Chris Beneke
Bentley College
  • edited May 17, 2007
    Just to clarify--Mac version of Scribe that allows one to export sources, notes, and keywords into Zotero (all linked in the same way as in Scribe) is now available. I'm traveling right now and haven't had access to a Windows machine but I will be back on Monday and will post both a Mac and a Windows version on the Scribe home page. Some Scribe item types don't exist in Zotero so the export will not be exact, but Zotero team plans to add pretty much all current Scribe item types in the future in their new hierarchical item types system, and the export will be more exact in time.
  • Hi Chris,

    Thanks for being an avid user of the Center for History and New Media's tools! Scribe is indeed a terrific program and we are working closely with Elena (who is our friend and colleague) to make sure that its users have a smooth migration path to Zotero (if they want to migrate). The Zotero team definitely wants to make sure that Scribe import into Zotero retains as much information as possible; some of this is a little rocky right now simply because of the complexity of the import and also because Zotero doesn't have a few things like rich text notes (we do plan to have rich-text capabilities for notes, although how exactly to implement this has been the subject of some debate elsewhere on these forums).

    Scribe 3.3, now available for the Mac with the Windows version due in a few days, includes Scribe->Zotero import (Elena and Dan Stillman are still working to make sure this works flawlessly). Thanks to Elena for working so hard on this upgrade.

    We currently have no plan for author's cards per se but it seems like this could happen if authors become item types; some other functionality in Scribe, such as the ability to cite letters in books and history-specific archival material, will become possible in Zotero when we move to the planned (and more advanced) hierarchical item type model.
  • Thanks for your responses Elena and Dan--and thanks for your hard work!
  • This is a good new! Looking forward to it!
  • edited June 12, 2007
    Scribe 3.4 for Mac and Windows is now available for download. The Scribe to Zotero Transition page includes more specific instructions on how to export to Zotero, and explains how the export migrates data from fields and item types not yet available in Zotero. Let me know if you encounter any problems. Elena
  • I'm considering migrating my Scribe data to Zotero, but I'm worried about whether this is a good idea right now. How labor intensive and time-consuming is this?

    I'm particularly concerned about the Scribe card types NOT included in the list (in the Scribe 3.4 tutorial) of those should export and import "well." If I Find All my Scribe cards and export as RDF, the card types that don't export "well" will be exported too, right? Is data lost? What happens when I import them into Zotero?

    The two big issues in migrating obviously are: 1. I don't want to lose any data; and 2. I want to avoid as much as possible retyping any information. Any advice or suggestions? If I would be opening a Pandora's box by undertaking this migration now (with the current versions of Scribe and Zotero), I'd probably rather wait and do it later.

  • edited June 15, 2007

    All the cards, keywords, and relationships will be exported. In most cases, there is no loss of data at all--for card types on the second, "not in Zotero," list, the information just goes into a different field, Extra or Abstract. For example:

    Zotero doesn't have a field for author address in letters but that info goes into the Abstract field.

    All custom fields go into Extra field, but you can still search for them: if you have a field Read: Yes/No, you will be able to advance-search the Extra field for: "Read: Yes" (in quotation marks) to find all "read" items (don't forget to reenter your specialized custom field labels before exporting).

    All Periodicals will export as books, but you can advance-search for "periodical" in the Abstract field to find just periodicals.

    In special cases, data may get lost. How much information gets lost depends on your specific research focus. Below are a few cases I could think of and may fix in future versions, but there could be other cases I haven't thought of:

    For letters you can only export the address for the first author--if it's really important for you to export the address for the recipient, you should let me know.

    For sheet music, authors of music and lyrics now export as contributors, so you will no longer be able to tell composers apart from lyricists for a given sheet (Zotero doesn't have a sheet music item type; a book item type doesn't allow for those creator types). A future Scribe export could add these creator types into the Extra field. Also, only up to 3 "contributors" get exported in this case--if you have two composers and two lyricists the last creator will not export.

    Only the first 10 keywords export as tags--I suspect this is enough, but let me know if I should add more.

    Currently formatting in notes is lost--Zotero doesn't have formatting in notes; in the meantime a future Scribe export could use basic formatting for _italics_ and *bold*. (But I'm hoping Zotero developers add notes formatting soon.)

    A lot of these issues may arise on a case-by-case basis, so please feel free to post a particular feature you are worried about.

    The main limitation of exporting to Zotero for me is not data transfer but speed of search/editing for large databases. Currently only up to 10,000 items is manageable (mine is 20,000+); batch-adding tags to many items at once is really slow; and quick search in My Library is very slow for large databases. But Dan is working to fix that.

  • edited July 23, 2007
    I hope you continue to support both Scribe and Zotero. I'm from the old Unix/Software Tools school: it's best to have different tools each of which does one thing well than to have a Swiss army knife that does lots of things, none particularly well.

    Just on the surface, why should one have to open their browser just to enter notes about a book they are reading? Scribe is good for notes and organizing thoughts. Zotero, for entering citation information for online sources. (However, I still find myself manually entering info into Zotero probably 95% of the time.) Neither is particularly good at searching online library databases such as MELVYL, at importing citations from electronic abstracting or indexing services such as EBSCO or ISI, for printing out bibliographies or writing paper using any of the zillions of academic formats, or for customizing for personal use. (E.g., I have my own EndNote style for library research which puts the call number on the left, then the library where it's located, then the author, and then the title.)

    Suppose one is taking notes on a a hard-copy journal article. Most of the things one wants to do is to quote, take notes, cross reference, and enter ideas. Zotero, which is oriented to web citations does not do this easily. For instance, notes are in one window and keywords, another. Cross referencing items with matching keywords while taking notes is very difficult.

    Also, Zotero has screen real estate issues that note-taking software need not have. Again, suppose one is reading a hard copy and comes across some references. If they're online, one can look them up online and import or (more often) copy the information into Zotero. However, the notes themselves only need a link to the online page, without all that real estate being taken up for library and reference information. It's hard enough to read an online article with Zotero open, because it takes up the bottom part of the screen. If the item is on one's bookshelf, then the reference may already be in the user's bibliographic database, (with EndNote) one can import it from an online database, or one can enter it by hand. Once that's done, one only needs to use the note-taking application. Even if the material is online, it's much better to switch between another maximized window to take notes or to tile the browser and the notes applications.

    Both Scribe and Zotero need a Find Duplicates function, and a way of synchronizing (not importing/exporting) with each other and with popular bibliographic database programs. Until they have all the bells and whistles of the better bibliographic software, and maybe beyond, people will continue using their current bibliographic software.

    I'd like to see four separate tools, perhaps as front ends to a common database: bibliography/citation database (ala EndNote, etc.), a note-taking/cross-referencing application, a web citation capture and sharing application, and an outlining/paper writing application. I'd also like to see standardized interfaces between them so that people can choose their favorite implementation of each of the four application types and so other application types (e.g., mind-mappers, author's helpers) can easily link up with the others.
  • I don't really agree with your premise: that Zotero is primarily for web resources, that it's any more a problem to open Firefox to take notes than any other application, or that the developers aren't doing a very good job elegantly building up an integrated tool.

    I certainly have no interest in using two or three different applications for what I consider to be an integrated activity. I presume the high level of interest in Zotero validates the approach.

    Of course, in the long term, perhaps smaller tools better integrated will have certain advantages. But I do think we're a long way from having the appropriate OS and API support to really make that happen.

    But Zotero will be building the foundations for that because it is based on what are ultimately a series of small and open pieces well put together.
  • edited July 24, 2007

    Zotero already provides capability for cross-referencing and taking notes, and many features that are missing right now (such as notes formatting or sorting of child notes independently from sources) will be added eventually. It's true, certain features (outlines, timelines) might be better added as separate utilities for Zotero. But as far as notetaking/cross-referencing is concerned, it doesn't make much sense to use two programs (Zotero and Scribe) for managing the same type of information.

    (By the way, in Zotero you can open a note in a separate window if you want to use more screen real estate to enter text.)
  • edited July 25, 2007
    Maybe I don't know how to use Zotero properly yet. I'll have to look into it. Still, my initial impression is that Scribe is much easier to use than Zotero. For instance, when writing a note, how does one look up and insert other references and keywords in the note itself? I mean the note and not the reference item. That way, one can search for all notes on a topic and retrieve only the notes themselves. It's not obvious how to do this in Zotero. Scribe doesn't do this literally either, but the keywords and references are right there on the side.

    This may be just getting used to working in a different style. I'll have to spend more time with the tutorials to see.
  • You can drag the note over a tag to add it. There are also two lines at the bottom of the note ("related: [click here]" and "tags: [click here]")--click on them to add related items and tags.

    In the dev version you can then search by tag and find notes only--the parent items will come up greyed out if they don't have the tag. i'm not sure if you can do that in the public version.
  • I exported a library of 200 cards from Scribe (the latest version) in order to import into Zotero. When I try to import exporteditems.rdf, the import fails with the dialog
    No translator could be found for the given file.

    Is the import supposed to be done before adding any other titles in Zotero? I.e., is Zotero supposed to be empty?
  • edited January 24, 2008
    Export to Zotero from Scribe 3.4 throws an error on import if you have empty or incorrectly formatted records (for example, if you have any file cards with no files attached). This bug is fixed in 3.5, now available for Mac at http://chnm.gmu.edu/tools/scribe/ The 3.5 version will be available for Windows this afternoon. Just download the new version, import your records from a previous version of Scribe, and try exporting again. If you use Windows, try to download the new version late this afternoon--make sure to check that it's 3.5 and not 3.4.

    Zotero doesn't have to be empty to import records from Scribe.
  • Dear Zotero and Scribe developers.
    I have been in trouble from transfering my scribe records to Zotero. I have 550 cards in Scribe, I started with 3.2 but have upgraded to 3.5 on a WinXP environment, but I am continuously seeing the alert "No translator could be found for the given file". The reason I find this process more confusing is because some of my cards from Scribe have been successfully imported to Zotero. I'm thinking that my problem might be caused of the non-English characters used in Scribe (most of my cards are written in Korea, Japanese or Chinese). If you might have any advice, I would be so willing to hear it.
  • edited May 5, 2008
    Non-English characters shouldn't be a problem. Your file may be malformed (although it's unlikely given that you're able to export part of it) or some of your records may contain control characters that are not allowed in XML (you can verify this by running your export file through an XML debugger such as Oxygen). If you've gone through all options suggested on the Scribe to Zotero Transition page and still can't import, please email your file (or a link to it if it's too big) to elena.razlogova@gmail.com and I'll troubleshoot it.
  • Thanks for your comment erazlogo, and yes, the problem was the characters. Once I deleted some characters that I had been suspicious of, Zotero has been importing the records quite well. Still, wish so many cards with the character that has problems, I'm not sure when I'll be able to fix all of them. At least, it's so good to know that I've found the answer :-) Thanks again.
  • edited May 5, 2008
    What were the problematic characters? You can probably run search and replace to delete them.
  • Dear erazlogo
    I just fixed all of the problematic characters using "Oxygen", using the find and replace option. Thanks again :-)
  • Elena,
    Trevor Owens suggested I write to you. I'm working on a biography, with the usual scholarly documentation. I told him that I don't see the advantage of switching from Scribe to Zotero, because I would be adding a level of complexity by migrating, unless Z offers me the same features and functionality as Scribe (or additional functionality), in which case why keep Scribe at all? No doubt, I'm overlooking something that should be obvious to me.

    Thank you,
  • edited April 25, 2009

    That depends on the features of Scribe you're using. Zotero is vastly superior at assembling (and sharing) bibliographies, and allows for taking notes and creating relationships between items. At the moment, Scribe is better at organizing notes, but I hope that will change eventually. Author item types and biographical fields are not available in Zotero yet, but this feature is planned (see forum discussions below). Once it's implemented, there will be a way to export biographical fields from Scribe to Zotero. I would definitely not use both programs--if you migrate, you should just stay with Zotero.


  • Hi, Elana,

    I recently upgraded from Scribe 3.2 to Scribe 3.5 in order to then transfer all my stuff to Zotero. (I have close to 3,000 cards.) The upgrade to Scribe 3.5 was successful. But, alas, I haven't been able to import my cards into Zotero, despite having carefully followed all the instructions: show all, export rdf, import the exporteditems.rdf file in Zotero, etc. I tried twice, but keep on getting the message: "Alert No translator could be found for the given file." Do you have any suggestions?

    Thanks in advance for your help.
  • I just would like to reinforce the need for a specific author item type in Zotero.
    This would be very useful for many history researches.
    Do you have any hint on a good item type to catalog authors? I've been doing it in a rough way, as "documents". Biographic information is in abstract and notes...
  • Hi all,

    I am just making the transition from Scribe 3 to Zotero now and have encountered some difficulty in importing my Scribe files into Zotero. I have been primarily organizing newspaper articles in Scribe, linking images of each page of these articles to the cards and metadata. Following the instructions on the Scribe website, I have easily managed to transfer all of my cards and metadata to Zotero, but my linked image files have not transferred and no longer appear in any way attached to the entries in Zotero. Considering I had a couple thousand cards in Scribe, I am hoping that there is some easier way to import these image files into Zotero and reattach them to their specific metadata rather than having to re-link these files in a time consuming, one-by-one manner. I imagine there is probably a fairly simple solution to this issue that will expose my lack of tech savviness, but my relatively thorough search of trouble-shooting tips has thus far yielded little help on this issue. Any assistance on this issue would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

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