A Zotero Group Library

Today I share what a group library with Zotero can do for you and your students, and how you can very easily integrate it with your RSS feed that you have showing up in your course’s blog stream as an RSS feed (using the Inoreader trick or the workaround I shared earlier)

A wide open stairwell in white with many different levels. The walls are lined with book cases, and some additional lower stand-alone book cases are placed along the walk ways. There are comfy benches. People walk, or sit and browse the books. This looks like a very inviting, quiet space.
Stuttgart Library, Photo by Gabriel Sollmann on Unsplash

Table of Contents

Reference Management Software and Zotero

If you are still formatting your bibliographies by hand, and have decided that’s the way forward for you: more power to you! I’d love to read a blog post from somebody who’s happy with that, because for me CMS (citation/reference management software) does so much more than just formatting the references correctly. Such a “manager” serves as my external memory for all things related to sources, and for a lot of people it also doubles as PDF storage area. (My idiosyncratic set-up is… something Rube Goldberg would be proud of, but so far it works.)

I have used Bookends by Sonny software since the early 2000s (yes, you read that right), and it integrates nicely enough with everything I do for my research; I am not tempted to move. But it runs on Mac only and is paid-for, so it does not work with my teaching ideals: free at the point of use for my students, and available to all operating systems if possible.

Enter Zotero. Zotero describes itself as “a project of the Corporation for Digital Scholarship, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development of software and services for researchers and cultural heritage institutions, and is developed by a global community.” It’s free to use for up to 300MB, which so far has been sufficient for my classes.

It’s not the greatest on iOS (I don’t know about Android), but there is an app; and it works great on Mac, Windows and Linux. Checks all the boxes!

Zotero logo with a big red Z in a hegaxon followed by the letters otero in black on a white background
Zotero logo

Furthermore, our librarians love using it, and know it inside out, and I trust my librarians 💕 I also ask our reference librarian Kelly Cannon to help me out with a whole dedicated session on Zotero. (And if you’re not teaming up with librarians for your teaching, what are you doing?!?!)

Setting up a Group Library

  • May I assume you can get yourself set up with the basics, using the Installation and Quick Start Guide from the site? Remember to add the connector add-on (Zotero’s web app works best in Chrome).
  • Good to know: you manage the group via the Web app, not the standalone app on your computer.
  • In the web app (zotero.org) navigate to Groups. Click on Create a New Group and add a name, and pick the level of privacy you want.
    • If you want to integrate your library with the course’s blog stream, choose “Public, Closed Membership” (unless if you’re ok with outsiders contributing).
    • You can change these settings later, no worries!
  • Now you can invite members to your library!
    • Ask your students to install the application and create a Zotero account.
    • We ask students not to use their college email address: this means they will not lose access after graduation when that email ceases to work.
    • TIP: I set up a Google sheet to collect the email addresses, and copy them into the invitation box: fast and easy!
    • Ask students to check their spam/junk folder if they don’t get the invitation; it happens.
    • Once they accept the invitation, they need to click on the “join” (or accept) button in the web app. “Oopsies” have happened that way.
  • You will see “pending invitations” at the bottom of the “Manage members” tab of the group. Handy if you want to check who’s not yet joined or if you’ve misspelled an email address (which, of course, happens to us all)

Tips if the invitation is delayed

The past week we (our awesome subject librarian and I) had a spot of trouble when we invited the students to the group library for the courses: I dutifully set up the Google spreadsheet, and most students did not get the email straight away; it wasn’t in the junk folder either. One student got their email some nine hours later, at 11.45PM o.0

Fortunately, we work with brilliant and creative students who shared the following two workarounds:

  • Option 1: Tell your students to check their Zotero inbox on the webpage zotero.org. Your invitation may well be waiting there! They just click on the message, follow the “Join” link and hop, they’re in!
  • Option 2: We had a few cases where even that message did not show up. If your library is “Public, Closed Membership” like mine, others can find it by searching for the name, or part of the name. In the search page, click “Groups”, not “People” or you won’t see anything (see image).
Screenshot of the search result in Zotero. Underneath the word Search, there are two tabs: People and Groups. Groups is selected. The search box underneath shows the term HST269 next to the search button. The result in Groups is "HST269 Traditional China" in blue as a hyperlink, and Group Library underneath it.
Screenshot of the search in Zotero — Click on the Groups tab, and then on the title of the library
  • In the search results, the student clicks on the title of the library, that takes them to the public page. There they will see a big red “Join” button, and now you will see their request pop into your Zotero inbox. Approve, and they’re in!
Screenshot of the top right corner of a public library in Zotero. The text describes the Type of library (Open), Membership (Open in this case), and Library Access (You can only view). Underneath this information is a red button with the word Join in white letters.
Screenshot of top right corner of a public library. Click that beautiful red Join button.

Having students add materials

When everybody is on board, I have a little exercise to get the students to use the catalog and find a book to add to our group library. Students have seen the demo from Kelly at that point and know what to do. If we’re teaching online, I pick from our extensive ebooks collection; otherwise I make sure to find a physical copy in the library so they get to hunt in the stacks for the book, and tame the classification system as well.

I try to find a book for everyone (or for pairs) that fits with a topic they’ve already expressed an interest in. Yes, this takes time to set up, but it pays off. Students get an early chance to see if they really are interested in the scholarly approach to their topic; for many it turns into the beginning of a semester-long exploration!

How to use the Group Library

With each student/team adding one book, even a brand new group library is not empty for long. At this point, I teach the “speed-dating for academic books” trick, and I suggest that as we add books, we also add tags and notes.

For the notes, I request that students include a brief description of the material, and a few words about who might find the material useful. This is the true power of the group library: collecting materials related to the course that may be useful to someone, someday, to help speed up the research process.

Students create their own “collection” (folder) inside the group library where I can easily follow them building a bibliography. I also strongly encourage them to add materials which they decide not to use in their work, with a brief note why: “great source but time period didn’t fit my project” or “title and content don’t match, it’s actually about X”, or “this isn’t actually a scholarly source, beware!” would be notes that I as a fellow student stumbling across such entries might find useful.

If you have an annotated bibliography exercise, you can use this same technique for the bibliography and annotations.

The next time I teach the course, we have all those wonderful sources and (hopefully!) notes from previous students to give the class a headstart on finding materials for small independent research projects.

This work doesn’t just magically happen. Regular reminders to use and maintain Zotero work for some, but not all students. An up-to-date library requires time, and energy, and both are in short supply for all of us. Perhaps the best we can do is to create time in class when students do some “Zotero gardening”: weeding out duplicates in the group library, adding notes and tags, putting book chapters from some ebook vendors in a folder together (looking at you, Jstor) and adding new items from their own searches. I haven’t been able to give them that time in a systematic fashion yet and it shows, so that’s on my course development list.

Adding the library to your course’s blog stream

Your library, each group and each collection inside it has an RSS feed you can subscribe to if you put the settings “just so”. This is why I suggested earlier, in setting up the group library, I chose the “Public, Closed Membership” level. “Public, Open Membership” should also work but then you don’t control who joins your library.

When you click on the three dots at the end of the icon list at the top of your group library, an option appears: “Subscribe to feed”. Click and you get taken to a new webpage with a lot of code. Just copy that URL in the menu bar, it starts with api.zotero.org/. This is an RSS feed, and that means you receive updates when a new entry is added. In other words: you don’t have to visit the group library and leaf through all the collections to see who’s adding what, you can point your RSS reader to the feed.

Screenshot of the Group Library in the web app with highlighted the three dots of the menu and the pop up "Subscribe to Feed"
Screenshot of a Group Library in the Web app

If you have set up a course blog stream, either using Inoreader or the WordPress RSS feed block, you just add the URL from the menubar to the right place as I explained in those posts. It’s fun to see new items pop up in the stream. (Occasionally a hard-core bio-chem article will show up, when a student has accidentally saved work from another class to the wrong group library. If it happens more than once I just send an email to notify them.)

Screenshot of the course's blog stream, showing a list of titles of blog posts and brief extract and publication details, including the name of the blog. Highlighted in a red circle is "Zotero Library HST269", the name of a group library.
Screenshot of the course’s blog stream


Even without a blog stream, a group library in Zotero is useful for the class; and even without a group library Zotero is useful for individual students. Not all students will immediately take to it, but managing a lot of references and formatting them in many different styles (because each discipline does things differently) becomes much easier. At some point in their college career, the penny will drop, even if it is not in my class – and that’s ok!

The group library is, in my opinion, a great opportunity to create a small scholarly community that extends beyond the boundaries of the class of that semester. Students help future students, and –after at least one iteration of a course– can enter into conversation with previous students, just like they do with the scholarship that’s published in books and articles.

I’d love to hear how you use Zotero, or what other ways you use to share sources with your students! Leave a comment!

About this blog series

This post is part of the second series explaining the digital tools I use for teaching courses online, face-to-face, and mask-to-mask.

If you like this post, please explore the others in the series, and sign up for new posts in the sidebar, under the Growth Mindset Cats 😀, add the blog to your RSS reader, or check back every other Monday, 6pm CET/12 noon EST, so you’ll never miss a post!

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