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Tuesday’s Tech Toys: Customize Firefox to Fire up your Research

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I am a big fan of the open source web browser Firefox, mainly because it is so highly customizable.

Following are some of my favorite add-ons for academics.  Some of these have been around for a while, but have recently introduced significant new features to beta or stable versions.

zotero – an open source citation manager created by scholars at George Mason University.  Any web page can be saved with notes and organized into folders you define.  If the page happens to contain bibliographic records – Amazon, most library catalogs, WorldCat, etc., you will see a small icon in your browser address bar that allows you to import the record with one click.  Records can be imported and exported to/from several formats including html pages and rtf documents formatted to any of several common citation styles.  I am currently using the latest experimental version, zotero sync preview, which allows me to save and sync work across multiple instances of Firefox – but it does only work where you have Firefox. 

foxmarks – sync and backup your bookmarks and passwords across multiple computers.  This one doesn’t require you to have Firefox installed on every computer you use, because you can log into the website and access your data from any browser.

Read it Later – provides a simple one-click method for saving web pages to read later.  How is this different from ordinary bookmarking?  The intent is that bookmarks are for sites that you want to return to again and again.  This extension simply creates a reading list for pages you don’t have time for now, but want to come back to.  One click to save, one click to mark as read, and it keeps your real bookmarks folders uncluttered. It also syncs across multiple machines and can cache pages for offline reading, for example on your laptop when you are away from a Wi-Fi hotspot.

WebNotes – allows you to highlight and annotate web pages and easily share the annotated version with others, which will make it useful for collaborative research and for Information Literacy instruction. 

Sage – this is an RSS feed reader built right into the browser.  It is perhaps not as functional as a Google Reader, but it stores your feeds with your bookmarks, so if you are also using foxmarks, you will always be able to find and check them.

Google Toolbar – This one has definitely been around a while and has its detractors as well as fans.  Some library colleages even think of Google and Google-style searching as the enemy of Information Literacy.  I don’t intend to get into that here; I just want to tell you about the latest beta version of the toolbar, which allows me to sync my search settings, notebook clippings, and (the most useful in my opinion) web history across all my machines.  That’s right – if I visit a site on one machine, all my other Firefox machines remember it, so I can easily search for and find that site I forgot to bookmark or mark with Read it Later.

Do you notice a theme here?  These tools are are each made all the more useful because they make it possible to sync my data across multiple computers where I use Firefox. That’s true even if I need to use a public machine with no admin privileges, because I keep a portable copy of Firefox on my usb stick as well.  No matter where I find myself, my bookmarks, RSS feeds, citations, and annotations go with me.  Recently this phenomenon has been called “cloud computing,” and I think this is just the beginning.

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