JabRef – a reference manager

I realize the latest posts have been heavily in the technography camp. This time, it still is – but going over to academics. JabRef is an application for managing references.

Academics have probably heard of the Endnote application, a program which will access databases of academic journals and allow you to generate your own bibliography; it will tie in to applications like Microsoft’s Word, so you can use it while writing papers.
Endnote is well known, but it is a closed application, and JabRef has the advantage of using the BibTeX format, the bibliographical subset of the LaTeX typesetting system. More on LaTeX another day – I already wrote about it and about BibTeX in the recent LyX article. For now, JabRef.

A reference management application is a logical product of geeks. Practically everyone who does programming professionally has gone to university or college, and it is only natural to use a computer to track your reference materials. When people start programming, they will want a target for their efforts, and reference management is so obvious that one can wonder why there isn’t more! But of course, it does require a certain effort to keep going – and there has to be a community around it. Projects like KBibTeX, Pybliographer, Zotero and OpenOffice.org’s built-in Bibliographic all offer functionality like this.

JabRef is a Java application, which from the beginning makes it cross-platform – and it has a very usable interface. Though there is quite a lot of scepticism towards Java – many people consider it quite clunky, and many java applications tend to be sluggish – JabRef is actually quite responsive.
There is an issue of personal importance to me, because I have a degree in Russian language, history and literature – it has to use Unicode correctly. When I used JabRef the first time, it did not, but now it does – and the feature set has expanded as well, making it an interesting tool.

The following screenshots can all be found in a Jabref gallery in the gallery section of Written and Read.

This is the main screen. I have loaded a small bibliography file featuring an article and a stack of books. As you can see, Unicode is supported, as the article is in Russian.
Curiously, BibTeX itself doesn’t actually support Unicode with LaTeX, but so many Unicode-supporting application can parse and use a BibTeX file that it is still useful to be able to make a Unicoded file.
As you see in this overview, it is possible to associate URLs and files with the bibliographies. This is quite handy when you use JabRef to manage materials relevant to the entry which you have stored locally. I usually link the books to their OpenLibrary entry, but obviously it is useful to track reviews, criticism and the like.
In the second screenshot, I have selected one of the entries, and the data of this entry are displayed below. Now, this is not all of the data – there is considerably more on this book – but it is possible to customize what is shown in this field. It is very useful to be able to see what you want to know.

Now, for the fun bit: To add a new entry. For this example, I will be using Bonvenon en nia mondo, an Esperanto book by Bent Jensenius.

Here is the sequence – when you want to add a new entry, press the green plus symbol on top, and a list of possible material types pop up. In this case it is a book – but the fields are different if you choose an article instead, so this is just to form an impression.
In the second screenshot, you can see the basic fields. Once they are filled out, you can press the magic wand on the left, and JabRef will generate a BibTeX key for you – the unique identifier for this particular entry. The last two are additional information. I was a bit surprised that there wasn’t an ISBN field, so I usually add it as a comment. Of course, it is possible to add it as a regular field, and maybe it is just to get ahead of the many types of identifiers.

As you see here, the program ties in to various databases, where you can fetch additional materials – when you have looked up a piece of documentation, you can add it as another JabRef entry.

JabRef opens an internal window to access the materials.
I would actually have expected it to use a browser window, but the way it displays it keeps the workflow consistent – and you don’t have to wait for a browser to load.

Now, musician and music teacher Jon Kulp alerted me to the fact that JabRef has some pretty powerful powerful export options.

He has used it to generate a materials list for his Beethoven class, and I very much like the layout. It is easy to use, and the Javascript links to fold out abstracts & reviews improves the overview of the page.

Getting into this export method, I have removed my Aigaion installation keeping track of the literature mentioned here; it just seems that much easier to export the data and upload. The data file is available here, and the resulting library file is linked on the right of this page – as the index.html file of library.writtenandread.net.

Okay, so I know things have been getting a bit technological around here lately. But I can assure you there is quite a bit of literary review in the works, so for those more interested in that genre, you won’t be disappointed.

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