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How can I tell LaTeX that it should use an existing bbl file foo.bbl, say, without running bibtex?

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LaTeX attempts to read a .bbl file when you use the \bibliography command. If the file does not exist, you get an empty bibliography. LaTeX doesn't 'know' if you run BibTeX, it only knows if a .bbl file exists. (You can make a .bbl file by hand, and it will work.)

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Yes that's exactly what I meant. I have a .bbl file (created "somehow", let's say) and I want LaTeX to use it without biblatex coming into play. – lpdbw Feb 24 '13 at 17:16
Some systems (e.g. LaTeXtools for Sublime Text) automatically run pdflatex, bibtex and pdflatex again during a 'Build', so note that in this answer the idea is to NOT run bibtex as this creates a new .bbl file. This means any \bibliography{foo} will be ignored. If nothing else, you can use the CLI to just run pdflatex once, if your editor of choice runs biblatex by default. The good thing about this approach is that the source .tex file does not need to be modified. – BDM Jul 14 at 13:18
up vote 7 down vote accepted

OK, I see, just use \input{foo.bbl}. The bbl file just contains the bibitems and thus can be included like any other content.

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maybe \InputIfFileExists{foo.bbl} ? – yo' Feb 25 '13 at 22:21
This is a great solution for making the "References cited" file for an NSF grant proposal. – Bjørn Kjos-Hanssen Sep 22 '14 at 0:10

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