Three ways historians can use LaTeX
As we have previously written about how historians may go about using LaTeX, today our focus is on the stumbling stones and problems historians may have with using the software. Richard Gunning (RG) and Tiia Sahrakorpi (TS) probe the problems and best practises of LaTeX to writing a PhD dissertation.
TS: I started to use LaTeX quite seriously after our blog member Richard wrote a good guide to using the program. Before we go too depth with our guide, one of the questions our readers who aren’t familiar with LaTeX might have, is which version of the program do you download? And how do packages work on the computer version?
RG: This is a very good question. One of the reasons I pushed ShareLaTeX in my last post was because it removed the need to manage software versions and packages as this is all managed by the company running the server. Installing LaTeX is different for each operating system. Check out the latex-project for detailed information on which distribution of LaTeX to install for your operating system. In summary, if you are on Windows use proTeXt; on Mac use MacTeX; on Unix you can install TeX Live directly. I would then advise installing an IDE (Integrated Development Environment) such as TexMaker, which will make writing easier.
Tex Live this is the back-end organiser of LaTeX on your computer. Through this you can easily install additional packages from the CTAN repository through a click of a button. TeX Live will also manage all the updates of your packages, so that they remain in line with the CTAN repository.
TS: One of the issue I had with it straight away was the syncing of my citations from Zotero (or EndNote, for those of you who use it) into the LaTex document. What is the best practise for this?
RG: This is one of the areas where I feel Zotero could use some further core development. On my system, I use a Zotero plugin, Zotero Better BibTeX, which modifies the behaviour of Zotero. This plugin provides better access to the bibtex keys and automatic export to your bibliography file. For a detailed guide of how you can use the plugin, see the Better BibTeX website. Without the plugin, I would recommend using an additional Bibliography management tool such as JabRef. I have used this in between Zotero and LaTeX before. With this I exported the citations from Zotero in BibLaTeX format, then managed the citations and citation keys using JabRef. Using JabRef, it is then easy to copy and paste the citation keys into the file.
Alternatively, you can just use Zotero and LaTeX. Zotero will export the library in BibLaTeX format, which can be read as a file by LaTeX. To get the citation keys for use in LaTeX, you can either learn the Bibtex key construct, so you can predict what the key you need is, or you can look it up in the bibliography file. Most other bibliography managers, such as EndNote, will also have an export to BibTeX option. I do not recommend this unless you have a small bibliography.
TS: What are the benefits of using LaTeX for writing a humanities PhD dissertation? Why shouldn’t I use MS Word, Pages, or Open/Libre Office?
RG: The best way to answer this is with the cartoon I used as the cover of my last post.
LaTeX is well known for making visually appealing documents which can’t be rivaled by WYSIWYG (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) editors, such as Microsoft Word. There is a reason why publishers will use LaTeX or similar for typesetting books.
The best reason for using LaTeX for your dissertation, is that most likely, there will already be a LaTeX thesis template that matches your University’s guidelines. It means that instead of having to work out how big the margins have to be, and which margin has to be bigger for two sided documents, you can just get straight into the writing.
LaTeX makes it incredibly easy to update the footnotes/citations, by simply editing the bibliography file or database. Also, you no longer do you need to agonise over the placement of images, unless you want to in which case LaTeX provides unrivalled control of the fine detail, instead you just insert the image and LaTeX chooses the best location to insert it.
One of the biggest problems people find with WYSIWYG editors is that the programs become very unresponsive if the file is image heavy or just very long. This is because the file must contain detailed information about the placement of every block of text and image. With LaTeX, the placements of everything is only worked out at compile time.
Therefore, the file you are working with is much less computer storage intensive so the editor doesn’t experience lag. Furthermore, the compiled files are in either PDF or DVI format. Both of these are much less file heavy than WYSIWYG file formats, which again makes loading the files faster.
TS: Thank you Richard for your replies on my problems with using LaTeX. Much of these issues are also easily found via Google and there are a lot of amazing people who work with LaTeX. I think this program is incredibly useful for writing long documents, which we will focus more on in our next post on LaTeX, so check our website for updates.