Spatially Enabled Zotero Database

As a geographer, I’m a visual person.  I like to see distributions on a map and where things are matters to me.  A few years ago, while I was writing a paper I became overwhelmed with trying to remember the locations for the studies I had read (for coastal plants, latitude matters), so I started marking the locations of studies on a map and eventually turned it into a printed map.


But adding new studies and sharing the results is a cumbersome and the spatial data is largely separate from the citation information.  So I set out to find a way to store spatial information in my citation database and access the spatial information for mapping purposes.  The end result (which is still a work in progress at press time) is a web map of coastal vegetation literature that updates when new citations are added to my Zotero database online.


How I Did It:

Key ingredients: Zotero, QGIS, Spatialite, Zotero Online Account

I started working with the Zotero database I already have populated with literature relevant to my research on coastal vegetation.  I moved citations that I wanted to map into a separate folder just to make the API queries easier later.  I made a point in a shapefile for the location of each study using QGIS.  I gave the attribute table fields for the in-text citation and a text description of the location for human-readability, but the most important field is the ZoteroKey.  This is the item key that uniquely identifies each record in the Zotero database.  To find the key for each citation, in your local version of Zotero, right click on the record and pick “generate report”.  The text for the key is after the underscore in the URL for the report.  In the online version, click the citation in your list.  The key is at the end of the URL in the page that opens.


My map only has point geometries right now, but that will change in the coming weeks.

The spatial information was then to be added to the Zotero database (specific queries can be found on GitHub) in Spatialite.  The Zotero schema is quite large but not impossible to navigate.  Currently, there is no option to add your own fields to Zotero (I tried… I failed… they tell me the option is coming soon) so I put my geometries into the “Extra” field.  Using Spatialite, I opened the Zotero database and imported my shapefile of citation locations (having new tables doesn’t break the database, thank goodness).  Then I removed any existing information in the “Extra” field and filled it in with geometry information in the style of geoJSON.  The string looks like this:

{"type": "Point", "coordinates": [-123.069403678033, 38.3159528822055]}

After updating the citation records to house the geometries, I synced the changes to my online Zotero repository from my desktop program.  Now it’s ready to go into a web map using the Zotero API.  My webmap code can be found in my GitHub Repository.

What’s Next?

I would like to develop a plug-in for QGIS that makes adding the geometries to the Zotero database easier because not everyone wants to run SQL queries on their active citation database that has been years in the making (I backed mine up first!).  The interface would show the citations you want to map, then users would pick a citation, then click the location on their QGIS project where the citations should be located.  The plug-in would insert the corresponding geometry for them.


About micheletobias

I lead two lives - one as an artist and the other as a scientist. More and more I'm finding my two worlds colliding, and it's not the disaster you might expect. View all posts by micheletobias

4 responses to “Spatially Enabled Zotero Database

  • pvanb

    Great idea! I have been thinking how to geo-reference (part of) my literature database, and your approach seems very promising. Especially if you would develop that QGIS plugin :-). Docear, being based on Freeplane, has some capacity in that area, allowing you to link your information to OpenStreetMaps locations, but very basic in terms of functionality and option and not options, as far as I know, to create a map with multiple references like yours.

    • micheletobias

      Sorry it took me so long to approve and return your message. I guess the notification never made it to my inbox. Good news! There is a plug-in for QGIS in the works. It’s functional too! It doesn’t do everything I want it to do yet for my own personal requirements, but it does points. In a couple of weeks I hope to get it released as an experimental plugin.

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