Fun with Zotero: Scanning barcodes

I’m fascinated by citation management software. At work, I regularly teach students, faculty, and sometimes other librarians how to use EndNote, and I’ve given a couple of sessions on Zotero as well. Sometimes I doubt that the majority of information professionals share my passion, but a quick look at my blog stats tells me that my most popular blog post by far has been the one I wrote comparing EndNote and Zotero, so I must not be alone.

Both EndNote and Zotero have been improved tremendously since I wrote that post three years ago, and I try to keep up with the new features. One feature of Zotero I find particularly useful when dealing with print books is the ability to import an item by ISBN. By clicking the magic wand icon, you can enter the ISBN of a book, either by typing it in or by scanning the barcode, and Zotero will import the metadata from WorldCat. Now, this feature is actually not new, but there’s a new option for anyone who doesn’t have access to a library barcode scanner (or for when you’ve left yours at home). Scanner for Zotero is an Android app that allows you to scan a book’s barcode using the camera on your Android device and then sends the record straight to your Zotero library. The app costs $2 from the Android Market, but if you really don’t want to pay, you can download the code, which has an open source license, and then compile it yourself (personally, I was happy enough to pay the toonie).

Logo for the Scanner for Zotero app

I’ve been using the app for a few weeks now, so I thought I would share my thoughts. In general, I am quite impressed; it’s a simple app without any bells or whistles that only does one thing but does it very well. I hit a small snag when setting it up, but the developer responded promptly to my email and walked me through it (thanks, John!). Scanning a barcode is reasonably quick, though not as fast as the dedicated barcode scanner I have at work, and adding an item to your Zotero library is straightforward (the simple interface does not provide an option for saving an item to a collection within your library, but this hasn’t bothered me). One of the only options available is to choose whether to use WorldCat or Google Books to retrieve the metadata. As one would hope, the records are more or less the same regardless of the source; however, there are some slight differences. What surprised me the most was that there were differences between records imported using the magic wand (which makes use of WorldCat) and ones imported using the app when instructing it to use WorldCat. Here’s what I found when using the three different methods:

Magic wand (WorldCat):

  • Language field blank
  • No page numbers
  • Editors show up in Author field without any indication they are actually editors
  • Only the first author is listed

Scanner for Zotero with WorldCat:

  • Language appears correctly as three letter code: eng, fre, etc.
  • No page numbers
  • Editor shows up in Author field preceded by “Edited by”
  • Multiple authors or editors show up in a single Author field

Scanner for Zotero with Google Books:

  • Language appears correctly as two letter code: en, fr, etc.
  • Number of pages appears correctly
  • Editors show up in Author field without any indication they are actually editors
  • Multiple authors or editors show up in separate Author fields

Both Scanner for Zotero options clearly produce better metadata than the built-in magic wand, but each of the three has its own quirks, presumably due largely to quirks in the structure of WorldCat and Google Books. I would recommend the app to any Zotero user with an Android device. Even if you don’t have a stack of books you’ve been waiting to add to your Zotero library, it’s fun to be able to zap the barcode of anything with an ISBN. Surely if you’ve read all the way to the end of this post, you must agree with my definition of fun.