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Refworks: Yeah, Baby!

I was going to review the Writers’ Marketplace database, and honest, it’s on the list. But I’ve been using Refworks for less than a week, and I am so dazzled by this product that if I don’t share this with you right this very second, I’m going to burst.

As a writer and librarian, I love the research angle. A lawyer I worked with on a project once observed that I “give good citation.” But in the MFA program I’m in, up to last week I’ve been juggling piles of labeled printouts. I’ve been in the Mesozoic Era of citation management–I, who manage a digital library. It has been shameful, utterly shameful!

I heard about RefWorks on the Digital Reference (DIG-REF) discussion list. Oh, why not, I thought, free trial. Little did I know that a love story was in the making.

RefWorks calls itself rather dryly if clearly “Web based Bibliographic Management Software.” If you juggle citations and references for any reason–writing, research–RefWorks is so much more than that. It can be your lifeline. RefWorks can slurp in citations from online catalogs and databases without batting an eye. If the database chooses to bat an eye, RefWorks has different import methods and strategies, one of which will probably work. (This was another problem I had with EndNote: I never convinced it to bring in citations from several databases I work with routinely.) It can even search some databases, though truth told I haven’t done that yet–that feels a little like mixing bread dough with my toaster oven.

But for citation support? Wow! This weekend RefWorks blithely gobbled up citations from Proquest Historical NY Times, MARC records from California’s Link Plus consortium, Gale databases (I had to email myself the citations, save them, and bring them in, but it took ’em), and sundry other places. Every available field was correctly imported. And the citations look good, are readily searchable from within RefWorks, and can be infinitely organized and reorganized in RefWorks folders.

But wait, there’s more! RefWorks supports a posh quantity of output styles… so many you might wish they had a “frequently used output styles” section for the Chicago/MLA/APA… and essentially they do, because your own frequently-called choices will show at the top, which is pretty tasty. I like how this product wants to be my software (but not in an intrusive heavy-handed sort of way).

Then there’s Write-N-Cite. This was the clincher for me. I dubiously downloaded the tiny helper client, entered a couple of citations in RefWorks… sure, whatever, I thought. I’ve been there before trying to reconcile bibliographic software with citations. I followed RefWorks’ clear instructions (I use their online help and a 6-page PDF they offer online), pushed a button… and seconds later had a paper with beautifully formatted citations and a bibliography.

The competition for RefWorks is EndNote. I have tried Endnote, many times, but first, I move from computer to computer, and second, my latest experience is that EndNote just didn’t want to cooperate with the products I work with from the libraries I use. RefWorks is Web-based, so my citations are always Up There, in the sweet pure Web ether than I can nearly always get to. Furthermore, RefWorks acts like it wants to gather, organize, and output my information. It seems to have a lot of forgiveness built into its system. I didn’t have to fuss until my forehead was damp trying to get it to input or output data. Yes, serious bibliographies need hands-on cleaning and grooming to come out correct. But a good bib program is a leg up on the problem.

RefWorks is also–dare I say it?–fun. Back in the mid-1980s, when I bought my Commodore Colt XT clone, computers and software were still fun. Beyond learning MS-DOS and tinkering with Enable (which I stubbornly stuck to, since it was the office standard in the Air Force, even though others swore that WordStar was the future), I didn’t do much of great practicality with that computer until 1990, when while stationed in Korea I convinced the computer (Herman, I called him) to output 24 letters of enquiry to library schools in the United States. It’s hard to explain why, but RefWorks is fun the way that first computer was fun. Maybe it’s the right balance of functionality and ease of use, maybe it’s a simple interface I could learn myself, maybe it’s tossing all those printouts in the recycling bags… but I am digging RefWorks.

RefWorks is $100 for a personal 12-month license. I asked University of San Francisco if they were going to get an institutional license, and they said it wasn’t affordable. I can dig that; I’m always asked if I can do X for My Place of Work, and trust me, I want to, I really want to, but we all have to pick and choose. Still, if your institution offers RefWorks, give them a big ol’ sloppy kiss on my behalf (or even your behalf). As for $100, rarely have I spent that much so gladly.


Refworks Sample: Output as Chicago 15th Ed.

How about one here… (Zhu 2004, 26)


Zhu, Qin. 2 Critical Stages for a Successful ILS Migration: System Profiling and Data Conversion. Computers in Libraries 24, no. 3 (Mar, 2004): 26.

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