Replacing the BibTeX–LaTeX mechanism

Producing a successor to BibTeX has long been a favoured activity among a certain class of TeX-users; the author has seen reports of progress (on several projects), over the years, but few that claim to be ready for “real-world” use.

Few would deny that BibTeX is ripe for renewal: as originally conceived, it was a program for creating bibliographies for technical documents, in English. People have contributed mechanisms for a degree of multilingual use (whose techniques are arcane, and quite likely inextensible), while an extension (bibtex8) allows use with 8-bit character codes, thus providing some multilingual capabilities. In addition, specialist BibTeX style files are available for use in non-technical papers.

BibTeX uses a style language whose mechanisms are unfamiliar to most current programmers: it’s difficult to learn, but since there are few opportunities to write the language, it’s also difficult to become fluent (in the way that so many people fluently write the equally arcane TeX macro language).

Oren Patashnik (the author of BibTeX) summarises the issues as he sees them, in a TUG conference paper from 2003 that seems to suggest that we might expect a BibTeX 1.0 … which hasn’t (yet) appeared.

In the absence of BibTeX 1.0, what do we need from the bibliography system of the future? — simple: a superset of what BibTeX does (or can be made to do), preferably implementing a simpler style language, and with coherent multilingual capabilities.

There are two parts to a bibliography system; processing the database of citations, and typesetting the results. The existing BibTeX system provides a means of processing the database, and there are macros built into LaTeX, as well as many LaTeX packages, that process the results.

Of the direct BibTeX replacements, only two have been submitted to CTAN: CrossTeX and biber.

CrossTeX’s language feels familiar to the existing user of BibTeX, but it’s redesigned in an object-oriented style, and looks (to a non-user) as if it may well be adequately flexible. It is said to operate as a BibTeX replacement.

CrossTeX’s team respond to queries, and seem well aware of the need for multilingual support, though it isn’t currently offered.

Biber is intimately associated with the LaTeX package biblatex; it is logically a BibTeX replacement, but is also capable of using bibliography databases in its own biblatexml (XML-based) format. Biblatex can also use BibTeX, but biber opens up a far wider range of possibilities, including full Unicode support.

Biblatex is a processor for the output of an application such as biber or BibTeX; the style of citations and of the bibliography itself (in your document) is determined by the way your biblatex style has been set up, not on some BibTeX-LaTeX package combination. Biblatex’s structure thus eliminates the collections of BibTeX styles, at a stroke; it comes with a basic set of styles, and details are determined by options, set at package loading time. The author, Philipp Lehman, evaluated the whole field of bibliography software before starting, and as a result the package provides answers to many of the questions asked in the bibliography sections of these FAQs.

Biblatex was released as experimental software, but it’s clear that many users are already using it happily; Lehman is responsive to problem reports, at the moment, but a de facto set of expert users is already establishing itself. A set of contributed styles has appeared, which cover some of the trickier bibliography styles. The road map of the project shows that we are now working on the final beta releases before the “stable” biblatex 1.0.

Finally, Amsrefs uses a transformed bib file, which is expressed as LaTeX macros. (The package provides a BibTeX style that performs the transformation, so that a LaTeX source containing a \nocite{*} command enables BibTeX to produce a usable amsrefs bibliography database.)

Amsrefs is maintained by the AMS as part of its author support programme,

biblatex contributions