So, #DigitalArchaeology twitter recently celebrated @LaTeX_ninja for a LaTeX template. What’s the fuzz about LaTeX anyway? And how is LaTeX relevant for archaeology?
What is LaTeX?
LaTeX (https://latex-project.org/) is a free software (LaTeX Project Public License (LPPL)) for document preparation, originally developed in the early 1980s by Leslie Lamport. It is very powerful, because it offers the user an infrastructure to create good looking page layouts. *ahem* In contrast to MS Word it includes automated and smooth image – text placing. 😉 LaTeX is best known for its ability to include mathematical notation and/or multilingual type settings in one document. But that is not all. Within a LaTeX set up it’s easy to manage citations and bibliography as well as to cross-reference bibliography, images and chapters. And there are several other gimmicks I’ll not talk about here.
I first used it for my Bachelor’s thesis in 2011, thanks to my brother who introduced it to me. The following years I wrote all my student paper assignments up to my Master’s thesis in LaTeX. I enjoyed the easy process once I had a template, the citation management (bless it!), easy image placement, and that my papers looked a bit more sophisticated than the typical Word layout. Recently a paper I submitted for a conference publication was written in Overleaf. Overleaf is a collaborative browser based LaTeX editor. I found it to be a smooth experience, as well.
In my mind, LaTeX is the free and open source markup language based alternative to InDesign for articles and books. It works completely different, of course.The aim, managing text and images for publication, is the same, though. A friend of mine had to type set his MA thesis in InDesign for publication. Though there is a horror story attached to my MA thesis submission and LaTeX, I still believe I had the easier deal.
But first some more info on LaTeX:
LaTeX is not like Word!
LaTeX is not like LibreOffice or Word, where you see the style you are using while you write. It is a markup language, so you use plain text symbols to “mark” the style, in which the program will transform the marked passage. Some say, there is a philosophical concept behind this approach: You can focus better on content if you’re not distracted by the design in which you are writing. I’m not sure about his. Fiddling with type setting issues in LaTeX is a well-known procrastination technique… 😉
So, once you’ve written a bit in LaTeX “markup style”, you let the TeX typesetting program transform it into a PDF. The layout and style of the PDF is determined by your settings within the header of your LaTeX document and/or some external documents (e.g. *.cls style templates). There are several TeX programs for any kind of OS: MiKTeX, proTeXt, TeX Live , MacTeX, … Overleaf is, as I mentioned, browser based. Their job is to give you a comfortable environment while writing and help you specify how exactly the rendering process looks like. Usually it is a “two pane” set up, where on the one side you write your markup text and on the other side the rendered PDF is shown.
I hope I could give you some insight in why this is a very useful program. But:
Why should archaeologists use LaTeX?
Archaeologists write texts all the time. We need these texts to look nice, probably in some standard way, and within the text we refer to images and citations. I really like the links I can embed in the text in LaTeX produced PDFs. A table of contents that links to the pages should be standard. Referring to an image in writing and the image number is the link to it – that’s smooth. Giving a citation and letting people click on it, so they can jump to the bibliography – that’s interactive. New media should be used in the way they were meant, and PDFs are more than just “scanned articles” (aka pictures of text, un-searchable, un-clickable, just scroll-able)!
But here are some more reasons it is useful for archaeologists:
Citation management: Biblatex for archaeology
We all know the problem of having to use a specific citation style for a specific journal. Nobody should do these transformations by hand anymore. Citation managers like Zotero are databases for bibliographic entries, that are waiting to be transformed into the bibliographical style needed. For use in LaTeX, one exports the needed library entries into a *.bib file. This library is referenced to in the header of the LaTeX document. With the help of a LaTeX package called biblatex and a small external programme (biber or bibtex) the bibliographic information is processed. A BibLaTeX style document will give instructions how to transform the entries.
And here it starts getting interesting. Since 2016, when I wrote my MA thesis, there’s been a lot of development of style documents for different journals. These are some I could find easily (biased to German styles):
- classics to cite classic works (Homer, Plato…) in accordance with traditional pagination systems by Eduardo C. Lourenço de Lima
- biblatex-archaeology for the RGK (German prehistory) by Ingram Braun (recently reviewed here)
- historische-zeitschrift for the journal Historische Zeitschrift by Dominik Waßenhoven
- biblatex-jisra for the journal International Journal of Student Research in Archaeology by Lukas C. Bossert
- archaeologie for the German Archaeological Institute by Lukas C. Bossert and Johannes Friedl
- tlg2latex to convert data from the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae to LaTeX by Maïeul Rouquette and Annette von Stockhausen
When I stopped working for an university, one of my tools disappeared: InDesign. At home, I’m working on a Linux distribution. Since the last time I had to create a Curriculum Vitae to apply for a job, my old windows PC had lost its marbles. So here I was, needing to create nice looking CVs, but yeah… so I turned to LaTeX and found some really good looking templates to adapt. I chose Twenty Seconds and 8h of work, but I was happy with the end result.
What do you think?
Archaeologists quite often need to apply for grants, jobs, stipends… and a professional looking CV goes a long way. In choosing a tool that works independent from what an employer might offer, we don’t risk losing old versions. An it’s free, did I mention that?
Recently I gave a talk about my PhD database and how I’m a bit afraid about the digital dark age and want to create LOD etc pp. Afterwards, the director of the Heritage Management of Brandenburg more or less told me “That’s all nice, but please, just print at least parts of the database, when you’re done”. Well, that’s fine. It’s a back up I’m happy to provide.
In this context I was even more happy to find someone had just now implemented a LaTeX solution for setting a catalogue from a spreadsheet. This means there is an automated way, and no need for copy-and-paste at all. It will be easy for me to extract a csv with the relevant information from the database to be put into the catalogue. I knew there were probably ways to do this, so I wasn’t worried, but I hadn’t looked forward to finding out by myself. So, big kudos, Sarah!
LaTeX is a really useful tool! I can really recommend getting comfortable enough with it to use it for producing documents in the style you choose. Especially if you prepare “same style” PDFs regularly, need different languages / sign systems or mathematical notation. Online tutorials like those of LaTeX_ninja, Overleaf and the core documentation can help you with getting started.
Just a small word of caution: Don’t start too late on fiddling with the layout. Here comes my horror story of MA thesis submission…
A tale of caution and creativity
I had planned to have two days for setting the last bits and pieces to look like I wanted. I ended up with having an evening for this job. It turned out to need the whole night. The largest problem? For image placement reasons I wanted my appendix to be turned sideways (landscape style), while the main text remained upright. There are, of course, ways to do this. Sadly, I wasn’t quite so proficient and struggled hard. I found a solution, though!
What I ended up doing is creating two different documents, one for the text, one for the appendix. I left the appendix in the first one and after rendering simply did not print the appendix part. This was all of course only for the submission in print form. This way, the image links to the appendix rendered fine (if LaTeX doesn’t find an image you refer to, it throws ??? at you). In the appendix part, which by itself turned sideways no problem, I created “mock chapters” for the text, so that the chapter number of my appendix was still correct.
I slept half an hour that night, but it worked. Sadly, when cutting my text part to not print the appendix I miscalculated and took off a few pages of bibliography. Oh well. I had a very understanding committee. Which was good, because somehow I lost parts of my pagination as well. Ehh… yeah.
LaTeX is powerful and enables you to specify every little bit of the layout. This also means you can destroy even the nicest template, if you want to.