Librarians and reference management software: Why we need to pay attention

I have been using a variety of free reference management software for ages. I use Zotero for my Graduate Academic Assistant position, where my supervisor and several other assistants collaborate. I use Mendeley primarily because of its ease of use, interface, and ability to share research articles with others. Just recently I came across a new free reference manager called ReadCube, and I absolutely love it. I now use all three programs — not because I can’t decide on which is the best, but because I want to learn as much about them as possible so that I can show them to patrons while at work. They all have positive and negative attributes, but as a librarian I believe it is important to have a strong, if not expert understanding of these tools. These tools were created to manage information, and I am trained to do the same. I believe it is my duty to be an expert!

For the rest of this post I am going to highlight a few of the features from my two favourite programs — ReadCube and Mendeley and explain how they can be useful for library patrons. I believe librarians need to pay attention to all forms of information management software, as it provides us with an opportunity to gain a new skill set that can be taught to patrons. 


ReadCube is relatively new and has a feature that no other management software has: an enhanced pdf function. This feature allows for easy navigation of all the cited evidence within an article. Simply click on the reference, and the full citation will appear on the right side of the screen:

ReadCube’s enhanced pdf function also provides any supplement associated with the article and embeds it into the article. This feature is very handy because it provides all the other information that is often missed when you import an article into the program:

Authors are also completely searchable within the enhanced pdf function, and ReadCube gives you the option of looking for an author’s research in either Google Scholar or PubMed. This feature makes it easier to track a researcher who may specialize in a particular field:

In the above screenshot I have clicked on an author’s name. Not only does ReadCube allow me to search this author in Google Scholar or PubMed, but it also lists every article written by that author in the right hand column. I think this is an excellent feature that is missing from other reference management software.

The other feature I love about ReadCube is that it lets you set up a proxy server when you first install the program. This means that if you are a part of an institution, you can enter your login information during the installation process and then access articles easily without the hassle of having to enter your password over and over again:

The above image came from my installation process. It asks me to enter this information once, and I have since been able to access any article that my institution subscribes to. This is an invaluable resource for patrons and researchers because I know firsthand that they hate entering passwords and any other information that creates a roadblock on their way to a journal article. At the College of Physician and Surgeons Library, doctors absolutely loathed the idea of having to login every time they wanted to access an article. ReadCube eliminates this process, and it’s really a beautiful thing.


Mendeley is another useful program that is easy to use, collaborative and now available for institutions. I have always enjoyed Mendeley because it provides an intuitive platform where multiple people can collaborate on one article (ie. take notes, highlight, annotate):

Mendeley has also launched an institutional edition that allows librarians to track altmetrics  so that they know what library materials are being used, and can make decisions based on this data. An article from the Swets Blog explores this topic and Mendeley at greater length, and is definitely worth a read.

Why should librarians care?

Librarians should care about reference management software because they are tools that can ultimately help our patrons manage their information, and with new developments from Mendeley — manage our own as well. Last summer I spent time with two other librarians teaching students and faculty about Refworks, Zotero and Mendeley. The goal of this workshop was not to prove one tool was better than the other, but instead that there are many different tools out there. Librarians should be holding workshops like this regularly

Refworks Zotero Mendeley UBC Library Workshop 2011

What I’m trying to get across here is that our understanding of these tools can lead to a teachable moment. When a patron is feeling overwhelmed with the amount of research they have accumulated, I want them to come to me because I am a librarian and I know about these kinds of tools. So if you aren’t familiar with some of the tools I have mentioned here, go out and learn about them. Not only are they useful for personal use, but they provide an excellent opportunity for us to stake a claim as experts and share our knowledge with library patrons. 

The author would like to note that he is in no way affiliated with ReadCube, Mendeley, Zotero or Refworks. 


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