Although I've been using LaTeX for over ten years, I've never really got to grips with the organisation and typesetting of bibliographies, but I've just been handed an incentive, so it's time to learn. I already have specific, detailed questions, but I honestly think that I should try at least to help myself with the basics before asking here.

I am aware of the questions biblatex in a nutshell (for beginners) and What to do to switch to biblatex?, but they don't, I think, give me the answers I need.


I run TeXLive on Windows 7, with a tendency towards XeLaTeX and latexmk. My extensive use of memoir might influence things, and I'd like to know if and how. At this stage, RefWorks, Mendeley, and Zotero ''have come up in conversation with no lawyers present'', and any observations on that would be interesting, although I don't think that bibliographic database integration is a major issue.

I forgot to mention that I'm trying to migrate all of my typesetting to UTF-8, though for bibliographies I can get by for the moment with the character set corresponding to ISO-Latin-1. Later, I may need Turkish (e.g. ş) and Welsh (e.g. ŵ)

I also forgot to mention that my editors are(!) TeXWorks, Notepad++, and, recently, Kile. Please try to avoid anything involving vi or emacs, as I've tried four times to go down that path but am not bright enough...


  1. As a complete bibliography newbie, what toolset should I use? As I have no legacy bibliographic databases, my inclination is towards BibLaTeX and Biber, but I realise that may be a bit leading-edge, so I'd welcome any advice, especially on potential pitfalls.

  2. What are useful reading and sample resources that I might read `to get started'?

  3. What are the exact relationships between UTF-8 (Latin-1 subset), UTF-8 (Expanded beyond Latin-1 to include Turkish and Welsh), back-ends (bibtex.exe and biber.exe), and front-ends (biblatex.sty and, say, natbib.sty). Perhaps the best answer to this question would say which combinations don't work together?

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    On the biblatex vs bibtex question: bibtex vs. biber and biblatex vs. natbib. Many non-Mac users here probably use JabRef as their reference manager. – Alan Munn Oct 7 '11 at 13:05
  • @Alan: Thanks, Alan. Sorry to hear about JabRef; I took a look at it yesterday, as it happens, and absolutely hated the UI... So I guess I'd better visit it again. – Brent.Longborough Oct 7 '11 at 13:39
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    @Brent I'm not too impressed with the JabRef UI either, but I'm a spoiled Mac user who uses BibDesk. – Alan Munn Oct 7 '11 at 13:50
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    @Brent.Longborough: See my answer for a quick comment on using the harvard citation commands. To typeset authors' names in the bibliography in all-uppercase (or is that small-caps?), the bib style file you use would need to contain the corresponding commands. – Mico Oct 7 '11 at 14:01
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    @Mico: Thanks. That was my first question to them: surely you mean small caps? 'Nooo,' was the answer, 'uppercase letters'. Why oh why is the world so full of crap? – Brent.Longborough Oct 7 '11 at 17:16

You raise a lot of interesting questions and issues.

  1. On the subject of natbib/bibtex vs biblatex/biber:

    If your bib entries

    • have a lot of letters with diacritics (umlauts) and other glyphs that aren't included in the basic ASCII set, or

    • use non-English but Latin-alphabet-based languages which employ special alphabetical ordering methods (e.g., in the Danish alphabet, {\o} comes after z), or

    • include entry types that were not included in the original design of bibtex (such as patents, CDs, videos, youtube clips, other content solely available on the www, to name but a few),

    then biblatex is definitely the way to go. (Actually, bibtex8 does support UTF8 input, as @Herbert has kindly pointed out to me. However, as he also points out, UTF8 is only a subset of Unicode.)

    On the other hand, if your work does not involve such considerations, it's probably not necessary to incur the somewhat higher learning costs of the biblatex method over natbib/bibtex. (Oh well, I'm going to get a lot of complaints now from biblatex afficionados...) The [biblatex manual][1] is, unfortunately, not so much a user guide but a reference dictionary; the document does have a "User Guide" chapter, but it doesn't begin until page 43 and it's about as exciting a read as if you were to open a phone book on a randomly chosen page. Long on definitions, short on plot. :-(

  2. Second, bibtex and biber are the "back-ends" which perform some heavy-duty work related to, say, sorting of entries. You'll need a "front-end" as well. For biber, the front-end is (of course) biblatex. For bibtex, there are quite a few front-end packages.

    • One of the most commonly used of these is natbib, which can operate in both "numerical" and "author-year" mode. A plus of natbib is great integration with the hyperref package -- a nontrivial point if you want to employ the latter package.

    • There's also the harvard citation package manager. If you choose to use that package and wish to use hyperref as well, be sure not to type \usepackage{harvard} in the preamble but, instead, to load both the natbib and har2nat packages. The har2nat package serves to map harvard-specific citation commands into equivalent natbib commands.

    • Even biblatex may be considered to be a front-end, albeit a particularly powerful one, for BibTeX.

  3. Third, you need a "style file" to inform natbib/bibtex or biblatex/biber how to typeset both the citations in the text (e.g., whether to write "et al" or "and others" when truncating a list of authors) and the references in the bibliography text (e.g., typeset the full first and middle names of authors, or only the initials? italicize names of journals and titles of books?).

    • Again, there are any number of such style files around, and you'll have to decide which ones fit your specific needs. The learning cost involved in creating a bibtex style file from scratch is, unfortunately, enormous; fortunately, there is the makebst.tex utility program, created by the author of the the natbib package, which is mercifully entirely menu-driven and creates a .bst style file for you after you answer several dozen queries. (makebst.tex is included in most modern TeX distributions.)

    • If you're a biblatex user, the good news is that there are quite a few style-file packages around for use with biblatex. E.g., there's biblatex-chicago and biblatex-apa if you want to conform to, say, the Chicago Manual of Style and APA methods. (Using one of these style files will spare you the drudgery of having to plow through the biblatex reference dictionary.)

  4. Regarding your question what to read to get started with the LaTeX way(s) of creating bibliographies: I got my own start in this field by reading (and re-reading!) chapters 12 and 13, "Managing Citations" and "Bibliography Generation," of The LaTeX Companion (2nd ed.). A real user guide, not just a reference work. :-) This book is about 7 years old by now and hence doesn't discuss biblatex (since biblatex didn't exist back then). However, because biblatex builds on bibtex's basic approach (while aiming to overcome bibtex's many shortcomings), the two chapters contain lots of useful information for biblatex users as well.

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    Thanks, @Mico. I am finding the biblatex manual a bit heavy on my eyelids. I've updated the question to ask about the precise relationships between the front-ends, back-ends, and UTF8 – Brent.Longborough Oct 7 '11 at 14:06
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    @Mico Surely there are more than three major features even biblatex+bibtex offers that traditional bibtex can't. Compact, short and abbreviated citations and qualified citations lists are just a few. You might want to make it more clear that biblatex styles aren't driven by bst files. biblatex comes with many standard styles. Style packages like biblatex-apa and biblatex-chicago supplement these. Your comments on the manual aren't balanced IMO. Its first paragraph points the reader to selected sections and example tex files to get started. – Audrey Oct 7 '11 at 18:26
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    @Audrey: I'm sorry, but I tend to agree with Mico. The biblatex manual points me, a quavering newbie, to nine different, disjoint sections. IMO, what it needs is a chapter called "Getting Started" which takes you through those nine bits in sequence, and outside a context of reference material. That isn't a complaint; I realise that the package authors are (a) very generous with their time already and (b) probably have real lives to get on with. Maybe when I'm less of a newbiw, I'll contribute this bit of writing... – Brent.Longborough Oct 7 '11 at 21:45
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    I'll qualify that even further: "getting started" should only be a very small subset of the information given in those nine sections, which together are completely overpowering. – Brent.Longborough Oct 7 '11 at 22:20
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    @Mico: bibtex8 can handle utf8. It is better to say, that bibtex cannot handle unicode, because utf8 refers to inputenc which is only a very limited subset of unicode – user2478 Oct 2 '12 at 8:19

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