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Digital Tools Review


March 25, 2015 by acoleman34

For my research tool review post I chose to discuss the perks and drawbacks of Zotero, Audacity, and Omeka—three platforms we have discussed in class—and Past Perfect and Google Docs —two tools I use consistently in my own work.

Zotero, as we know, is free (major plus) and easy to use. Essentially, it acts as a library to store all the resources you need for project after project and is an extension to help you collect, manage, and cite them. Some of the things I love about Zotero are Autofind, folder functionality, and the fact that it is open source and can import citations from almost anywhere. For Autofind, Zotero recognizes when you are looking at a summary, abstract, citation, and/or list of articles and puts a little icon next to the URL. When you click on the icon, it automatically stores the citation information for that article in the database. It is a great feature that makes citing and garnering resources much more efficient. Zotero has great folder functionality and the folders and subfolders list is extremely useful. Research papers aren’t emails. Throwing them all in one folder and searching for them is often not the best way to find what you’re looking for so in Zotero you can place any resource into one or multiple folders depending a project. This seems to be different from other bibliography building sites, where you add and add sources into one folder that eventually becomes one long works cited page. Another perk of Zotero is that it is open source and free. Zotero is actively being worked on, which means bugs and kinks, and compatibility issues are constantly being fixed. Its affordability makes it an extremely accessible tool for students and others without mounds of funds. I think we’ve all been there.

I have used Zotero for the better part of two years and would have never made it through much of graduate school without it. Zotero did not necessarily change my approach to research but it did make it more efficient and ultimately more effective. I am the guy that tends to leave 100 different tabs open on my screen while researching but, by using Zotero and placing resources directly into the program, I have minimized the amount of open tabs drastically. Overall, for my research purposes from here on, Zotero will be my “go to” for the organization of resources. I know I said I would discuss the drawbacks but, honestly, I cannot find any.

I have fooled around with Audacity before but not until this class and this assignment had I learned all it had to offer. From a sound-editing standpoint, Audacity rocks! Audacity offers an array of editing tools including tools you use most for podcasts and the like, which include mixing, cropping, cross fading, and noise reduction. Editing sound files is Audacity’s primary function; therefore, it offers every tool and function you need to create whatever perfect sound you are going for. The software provides you a waveform of the sound file you are working on and this gives you the ability to do whatever you want to your file and, therefore, your sound. After playing around with the tools it becomes easier to create what you want. One thing that was lacking from Audacity was ease of use. If you’re new to editing sound files, it may take a few hours to get to know the software. The more advanced stuff, which I have not played with, would certainly take longer. Audacity seemingly developed its software for use by both novice and advanced users making it both accessible to the average Joe and the professional sound engineer. I have Mac computer and I am totally brand loyal in that respect, so I do not see my self using Audacity all that much in my own research. Apple has a software called Garage Band that is similar and, in my opinion, much easier to use. Each would be useful in doing oral histories but if you happen to have a Mac you could always use IMovie to film, record sound, and edit both.

Omeka is extremely handy in the field of collections and exhibition development and display. So far it has been fairly easy to use and straightforward. As we know it is a content management program that can also be used as a quasi collections management/archival tool. Omeka is very user friendly and is great for smaller to medium projects for either researchers or small museums. For me, Omeka has not changed my overall approach to doing research other than providing a suitable platform for presenting findings. On the other hand, as collections management is my primary area of interest, Omeka would be a great way to incorporate small collections digitally and create exposure for a collection that might otherwise not be seen often. And again, Omeka is open source making it an ideal candidate for researchers without a budget or small institutions without extensive ones. Open source also means that, like Zotero, the software cost nothing, and its source code is feely available, so glitches and bugs can be identified by a broad range of users and updated frequently.

In my on the job experience the program I most frequently use is called Past Perfect. Past Perfect is collections management software that allows you to efficiently collect, accession, de-accession, and condition report on objects within museums’ collections. Essentially, it stores data entered by the user such as accession number, provenance, object IDs, location and even appraisals that correspond to a particular item within the collection. It acts as a finding aid and database for one or multiple collections. The program is fairly user friendly. It took me a full day to teach myself how to use the basic functions correctly and some of the more in depth processes I have yet to explore, but I expect them to be similar in interface and ease of use. The one drawback of Past Perfect is that it is not open source. It is software that must be purchased and can cost up to $900 depending on the version you buy. Past Perfect is not a research tool for researchers per se but it allows collections managers and archivist to assist researchers in a much more efficient manner. The software’s search functions allow you to search based on 20 different sub-fields making it very easy to use and find specific objects and/or documents. For me, Past Perfect has been the most helpful when trying to work with objects and/or documents and also find them for others.

Google Docs is an online digital tool I use everyday in my work. I use it for research and for outside jobs as well. Google Docs is essentially Google’s version of Microsoft Office and it is just as easy to use. The front page of Google Docs is also fairly simple to understand. Open up a new document and Google will ask if it is a word document, presentation, or spreadsheet. Forms are available that can be emailed out to anyone, with the responses submitted to Google and their results compiled for you. Documents of all types can be easily grouped together into different folders and moved around as needed, and the user’s view can also be restricted to a specific folder or organized according to date or name. The main perks of Google Docs are the ability to share your work easily, they allow for cooperative editing, and your work remains backed-up. In my work, Google Docs acts as a method for my bosses to see the work I’m doing and also comment on and/or edit the work I have done. Any work I perform on Microsoft Word, I tend to immediately put into a Google Doc and in Dropbox as well. I have lost enough papers over the years to back them up more than once. Overall, it’s a great tool for writers and collaborative research.

There are many digital tools I have yet to explore but the open source ones like Zotero, Omeka, and Google Docs allow users to manage research materials efficiently and are catalysts for a creative final product. Past Perfect software, although technically not a digital tool for the general public, is excellent for collection managers and archivists because it eases the process of obtaining collections and presenting them. Audacity is a great site for sound recording and engineering but I honestly suggest Garage Band or IMovie if you have a Mac. I look forward to trying some more tools in the future, but for now these are making my life easier.


  1. chuber1 says:

    I had never thought of Google Docs as a back up system, but that makes a lot of sense. I do like the collaborative nature of Google Docs. I have used on several group projects and the ablity to edit and comment as well as work on the same file. I am curious about Past Perfect. I have not had the opportunity to play with that software yet. How bad is the learning curve on that? Is it anything like FileMaker Pro in terms of creating a database and searching collections?

  2. Adina Langer says:

    Austin, I particularly appreciate your comparison between Omeka and Past Perfect. I have used both programs in my work and find that there are benefits and drawbacks to both the open source and proprietary formats for collections management software. Although free, open source software places more of the burden for updating and bug-fixing on the user while proprietary products come with contracts for this kind of work. it is something important for small organizations to consider as they contemplate which systems to use for collections management.

  3. nsakas1 says:

    Austin I also agree with your assessment of Zotero. Since I have been using the program citations have been a snap as well as forming a works cited page. Also the fact that it is free is a plus to a broke student like myself. I like the folder organization as it has made keeping up with my research a breeze. Audacity is another tool I am new to as you are as well. I have been impressed so far. Also being free it fits in the budget. My majot plus was that it has given me an online archive to store my oral interviews. I am not so familiar with Google docs., but the way you have presented it makes me want to try it out. I also have been the victim of lost papers, usually due to my disorganization, but having more backup can never hurt.

  4. kdaly3 says:

    I definitely agree with your opinions on Audacity and Past Perfect. Though I use a lot of Avid software and Premier Pro for a lot of my editing, I find that sometimes these platforms can be counter-intuitive when looking for ways to editing simple sound clips. I also did not even think to consider Past Perfect in this assignment, but I’m glad you did. One (extremely minor) issue I’ve had with Google Docs is that the tools do not always translate over exactly to the way Word works. Did you have any issues regarding this at all?

  5. jeldredge1 says:

    I guess I need to futz around in Zotero more to get more comfortable with using it and then I’ll be much more inclined to. However, the ability to import citation materials into Word is one of the best aspect of the program to me, and I definitely like it for that. I haven’t used Past Perfect per se, but when I worked in CRM, the company had its own specific version of software that functioned very similarly (from what I gather) to PP for cataloging archaeological artifacts. Audacity sounds interesting, except for being able to spare a few hours to learn it. I sometimes need to edit oral history sound files, but I have found an app for my iPad, Hokusai, that I like because it’s visually sound wave based. I can use my fingers to zoom into a section of audio, clip it, compress it (speed up) or stretch it (slow down).

  6. lspencer12 says:

    I never used Audacity or Past Perfect. And as you read earlier this is my first time around the dance floor with Zotero. I found Zotero to be frustrating & somewhat time consuming to populate the data fields. I know that it would be beneficial to familiarize myself more with Zotero. As far as Audacity and Past Perfect, I have not had a need professional to to use either of these programs. But I on occasion do find myself conducting oral interviews from time to time, finding a simple to use editing program would be helpful. I will keep Audacity in mind for the future.

  7. Susan Prillaman says:

    I think you and I are working with different Zotero file structures since that’s the one area I complained about in my review. Maybe you can disabuse me of my ignorance in how it works!

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