The Educated Browser: Scholar Simplifies Bibliographies


Article ImageTo many, the word bibliography sounds about as pleasant as nails on a blackboard, calling to mind unpleasant recollections of last-minute, late-night research reports: After burning the midnight oil completing a scholastic epic, you still face the daunting task of sifting through mountains of research materials, then citing sources—including book title, author, publisher, copyright date, and page numbers. Luckily, there are those hard at work trying to make at least the citation part of this familiar academic drama fade into distant memory.

Dan Cohen, assistant professor of history and art history at George Mason University and director of research projects at the Center for History and New Media (CHNM), and his team have been pondering ways to make citation a faster and more efficient process. The team had been working internally with a program at the CHNM called Scribe—a free alternative to applications such as EndNote and RefWorks—which gives users a set of electronic notecards where they enter all of the metadata for a source and thereby manage citations. But they knew there had to be a better way.

In September 2005, his team obtained $250,000 in funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, a source of federal support for the nation's 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums, to help them develop a better citation tool. Less than a year later, the team introduced the beta of Scholar, a Firefox-browser based alternative designed to help anyone more efficiently manage bibliographic citations and notes.

Existing tools like EndNote can be very effective, according to Cohen, but he emphasizes that Scholar runs in a browser, as opposed to being a separate application. "The web browser is where students, teachers, and professor are doing an ever-greater amount of their research," Cohen says. "And with digitized collections such as Google's massive library project coming online in the next few years, the amount of time spent working in the browser will become even more significant. So it seemed obvious to us that the best place for a tool that manages citations and note taking was right in the browser, not in a separate application."

Scholar will enable users to grab, with a single click, a citation to a book, journal article, archival document, or museum object and store it in their browser. Researchers will then be able to take notes on the reference, link that reference to others, and organize both the metadata and annotations, which CHNM believes will have the added benefit of enhancing the usefulness of museum and library collections. All of the information Scholar gathers and the researcher creates is stored on the client's computer, not the institution's server, and will be fully searchable.

"After putting the bibliographic information into the browser, the program becomes aware of what they're researching," Cohen says. He adds that Scholar can sense citations on the web page, take snapshots of a web page, or annotate digital images. "It's constantly sensing what's on the web page."

"The wonderful thing about building this tool right into the browser is that it can then be looking over your shoulder, so to speak, while you do online research. It tells you that it's ready to save an article that you are viewing or picking out books from a web catalog. A separate application can't do that. The fact that Scholar is free is a nice bonus."

This functionality is designed to benefit scholars and researchers, but web developers can leverage Scholar features as well because, like other Firefox tools, its code is open source. If developers would like to add the ability to annotate digital images to an application they are working on, for example, they can freely use the source code to develop a tool to do so.

The initial beta testing for Scholar took place in August, and there will be a general public beta this month as well, which is expected to last for about a semester. In the future, Cohen says, "we hope to enable fancier exchanges of citations and notes with a centralized server that will be able to recommend to users of Scholar articles or books or web pages they might be interested in, and to share and collaborate on bibliographies, notes, etc." Free of charge, Scholar will run on any OS that will run Firefox (Windows, Mac 10.2 or higher, and Linux).

"Please include a bibliography" may never be words you want to hear, but as more and more web-based applications shift toward the browser-based exchange of information, ideas, and (in this case) citations and notes, bibliographies become at least more manageable and, at best, more meaningful.