Bibliographies in Excel
May 4, 2005 9:24 PM   Subscribe

I'm working on my MA thesis and so have an enormous jumble of books, articles, and references kicking around. I am looking for an easy way to manage this.

The idea I had was to use Excel to create a spreadsheet that has all the information for each title (bibliographical information, and perhaps some short annotation) and was hoping I could somehow do some kind of macro thing that will take the information from the cells and then put them into a word file in alphabetical order, in MLA format.

Is there a way to do this? I am not too familar with Excel, but I seem to remember a mail merge or somesuch doing a similar function to create mailing labels.

I know there are software solutions to this (one of my professors uses Endnote which looks extremely handy) but I'd like to do this with my existing set up.

If it makes a difference I am using Office 2004 on an iBook running Tiger.
posted by synecdoche to Computers & Internet (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've just finished mine, and I can seriously empathize. I created a form for articles (I can email this to you), and I would take notes on books with pertinent info and detailed quotes. I did my best to squeeze everything out and then get rid of any books I could. Last week I still had 20 books hanging around, but that was a fraction of the total... Also, I made my reference page as I went along, and at the end I deleted some entries that were never used. Endnote was a hassle for me, to be honest. Good luck.
posted by maya at 9:30 PM on May 4, 2005

I just bought DevonThink ($40) to manage my research. It does much more than what you are looking for, but it might be helpful.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 9:30 PM on May 4, 2005

Get Endnotes. This is what it does. The only reason to fiddle with a self-built solution is to avoid writing the thesis. It's worth the price, it really is, if you want to focus on the writing and not the enormous jumble.
posted by dness2 at 9:33 PM on May 4, 2005


LaTeX is free.

LaTeX is eminently suited to long, complex documents such as theses and dissertations, including documents spread across multiple files.

LaTeX will do a much nicer job setting your thesis than any word processor will.

Odds are, there is a LaTeX class-file for your school's thesis requirements, so all you'd have to do is dump your text in. If there's nothing obvious listed, inquire with the mathematics, CS, or physics departments. Then it will do all that weird thesis stuff correctly without you having to fuss with it.

LaTeX includes bibTeX, a bibliographic engine. You keep a database file with stuff like this:

author ={David W. Prince and L. Marvin Overby},
title ={Legislative Organization Theory and Committee Preference Outliers in State Senates},
journal =sppq,
volume ={5},
pages ={68--87},
year ={2005}}

And then when you write you drop in \cite{princeoverby2005} instead of (Prince and Overby 2005), or \citeasnoun{princeoverby2005} if you want to refer to Prince and Overby (2005), or some other variants if you wish. Dead easy.

Then bibTeX assembles your complete references section for you, in any of zillions of styles you can tell it to (MLA, APA, whatever) out of the works that you have cited.

LaTeX is free.

There's a bit of a learning curve, but nothing unmanageable. It's similar to html.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:52 PM on May 4, 2005

If you plan on using LaTeX to write your thesis, then the BibTeX file format is extremely compatible with a "mail-merge" solution. Bonus for being a Mac user: TeXShop on the Mac is the most elegant and user-friendly implementation of Tex to date on any platform.
posted by fatllama at 9:53 PM on May 4, 2005

*winks at and does secret TeX handshake with ROU_Xenophobe*
posted by fatllama at 9:54 PM on May 4, 2005

You might want to check to see if your university library has purchased access to RefWorks, it does help you manage and annotate citations and since it is online you wouldn't have to purchase any software. There might be some problems using the in-text automatic citation feature on a Mac though.
posted by gnat at 10:06 PM on May 4, 2005

Go with ROU_Xenophobe's suggestion. You _will not_ regret learning LaTeX.
posted by null terminated at 10:08 PM on May 4, 2005

To offer a differing opinion: LaTeX is great - I use it for everything I do. Once you've learned it, I agree that it can be a tremendous timesaver in various ways. But the time to start learning it (for most people) is not while you are writing your master's thesis/dissertation/qualifying papers - it's about 1-2 years before that. Now is not a time when you want to learn a whole typesetting language from scratch - because that's what you will be doing, instead of writing the thesis.
posted by advil at 10:10 PM on May 4, 2005

As great as LaTeX may be, it takes a bit of time to learn, as advil mentions. I'd look to see if you can get a copy of EndNote through your university-- many universities purchase site licenses and offer copies of the software for very little money or for free. I've used it for the past 5 years and really like it. It has the advantage of offering complete integration with Word (if you're using it), and you can even drag and drop references from an EndNote list into a Word document and have them show up as citations in whatever format you've chosen.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:34 PM on May 4, 2005

Since you're already using Word, Endnote could be the way to go, and is apparently Tiger compatible. (Your school may offer it to students for free.)

You can download citations into Endnote from your school's library catalogue, on-line databases, or enter them manually, and Endnote will insert them into your .doc at the click of a button. There's also a notes field which can store up to (I think) 8 pages of text per reference.

I've been using it for a couple of years for my doctoral thesis, with no major problems. (I still have an enormous jumble of books and articles all over my office, though.)

On preview: what yellowcandy said.
posted by Sonny Jim at 10:40 PM on May 4, 2005

Oh, I dunno. You don't need to learn much LaTeX at all to get a thesis done, especially if it's in English or history and the most complicated thing you'll have to do is maybe a table.

You can get by perfectly well with Endnote, and if time is of the essence then that's the smart thing to do for now. The catch is that you're still risking the crop of bugs in Word, which isn't great at dealing with long documents.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:58 PM on May 4, 2005

While we're here, are there any great online TuToRiAlS for LaTeX? If it really is the best thing for long documents, and I can figure it out, I might as well start now (assuming I stay in grad school after my recent thread!).
posted by fionab at 11:15 PM on May 4, 2005

Response by poster: I'll look into LaTex, thanks.

If it is a typesetting program, will it do what I want, though? I am less concerned about the format as I am about having a handy database of the articles I have that I can sort quickly and export to Word (or perhaps LaTeX, I guess).

I'll look into seeing if I can snag Endnote. I suspect the professor who has it purchased it with his SSHRC grant but I'll double check.
posted by synecdoche at 11:21 PM on May 4, 2005

I also vote for EndNote. We use it in our biochemistry lab where papers usually consist a copious amount of references and all indications point towards out people loving it. If you can get your hands on a copy, then you might be able to get the library to give you a tutorial.
posted by jmd82 at 11:27 PM on May 4, 2005

I use excel to organize all my paperwork. I write sequential numbers on each photocopy which correspond to a sequential number column in excel. I then write in the author in one column, the title, or a pastiche of it with keywords, abbreviations, whatever is unique in another column, and the date in the third. I have over 1500 entries in this. In my filing cabinets, each hanging folder holds a set of 10 items. All items are in numerical order. I can find anything in the spreadsheet very quickly, find it in my files quickly, and refile it quickly. It is extremely quick to set up and extremely quick to add items to. Anything can be added - it need not be bibliographical -- pictures, receipts, memos, whatever you want to find again. I write the numbers in a corner with a red sharpie. Books could be done with a numbered label on the spine. The beauty of this system is you dont have to think about categories ahead of time -- basically you tag the item with its author, all or part of its title, and a few keywords.

While this might not be as sweet a solution as the ones mentioned above -- and I am familiar witgh LaTex, it seems the questioner was asking both about making a references cited section of their thesis but how to manage the diverse collection of research material, and also specified they wanted to do it with existing resources. My method has essentially no learning curve, can be done in excel, can be limitlessly expanded (or pruned), is flexible, and each entry takes about 20 seconds. Now, stuff you actually cite you would need to do a proper bibliographic entry, but 90% of my reprints I never actually cite, just have read and keep for reference, and this helps me organize all my stuff.

on preview: yes end-note is fine but be prepared for a lot of time entering the info. And LaTex is great if you have a lot of formulas and stuff, but for a vanilla thesis, its overkill - tough learning curve.
posted by Rumple at 11:36 PM on May 4, 2005 [2 favorites]

Another vote for LaTeX.
posted by Wolof at 11:42 PM on May 4, 2005

hey Rumple, when you say "each photocopy which correspond to a sequential number column in excel" do you mean column or row?
posted by fionab at 11:57 PM on May 4, 2005

While we're here, are there any great online TuToRiAlS for LaTeX?

Heh. It's LaTeX because it's an extension of TeX (pron. "tech"; the X is theoretically a chi) originally by Leslie Lamport.

The tutorials that are out there tend to have two drawbacks. First, they're intended for tech-heads, which makes them more complicated than they need to be, and prone to wandering into programming details when there's really no good reason to do so. Second, they're also intended to serve as references after you've picked up some LaTeX, so they tend to go into much greater depth than they need to. Lord knows it's no harder than basic html.

If you can take it as read that it's not nearly as hard to work as it might seem, just blunder through any of them. This is a decent-enough introduction to TeX for longtime word-processor users. Here's a good-enough introduction. A standard reference is the Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX2e, which you can find in a zillion places. The LaTeX project's own introduction doesn't suck.

There are really only two or two-and-a-half hard parts to get through, or hard things to get used to.

First, it's a bunch of separate programs that all sort of work together but that aren't a coherent package. It's not even like OfficeXX -- it's a bunch of internal tex programs, and postscript programs, and pdf programs, and a text editor, that you're using all at once to get a job done, This can make it a pain to install and configure. From all reports, texshop for osx really is nice; in the windows world you'd be using mikTeX and some other stuff and in linux it would usually be auto-installed as tetex.

Second, LaTeX drives a wedge between writing and formatting. On purpose. The idea is that there are two parts of completing a document -- writing the text, and formatting the document -- and they ought to be kept separate. You sit down to write text, and then LaTeX will format it for you, mostly pretty well. One of the ways this pops up is that what formatting you do do in LaTeX is usually logical instead of physical -- you don't change fonts and font sizes and indentation and then type Section 3: Yadda blah blah yadda. All you do is type \section{Yadda blah blah yadda} and LaTeX figures out the appropriate physical formatting for a section heading in this kind of document.

At least when I finished in 2000, Duke had a class file -- the master file for the dissertation that lays everything out -- that was well-supported and dead easy to use. My experience with The Dreaded Ruler Ladies of the Allen Building boiled down to "Oh, you used the latex file?" as they ruffled the pages, and when I answered "Yes," they just said "Oh, great, no problem. We'll make sure the figures aren't too big but otherwise you'll be fine."

If you start using it and run into trouble, just run screaming back to askme and a jillion screaming zealots will descend upon you offering mostly contradictory advice.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:11 AM on May 5, 2005

fionab, unclearness is my achilles bete noir .... Column A has sequential numbers, one for each row (bold and red so I can see them easily, unlike the normal row numbers, and also sortable), Column B is the author(s), column C is the title/keywords, and D is the date. This is a really dirt simple system that lacks skillz of any kind, but is so simple I actually use it. Others' MMV.

On preview: a lot of universities also have thesis templates & stylesheets for Word, etc.
posted by Rumple at 12:17 AM on May 5, 2005

If it is a typesetting program, will it do what I want, though? I am less concerned about the format as I am about having a handy database of the articles I have that I can sort quickly and export to Word (or perhaps LaTeX, I guess).

Yes, it will.

You'd keep one file that's your database. Here, you put in the various @article and @book and other sections you need. This is like your excel file, but it's plaintext descriptions. If you really wanted, it wouldn't be hard for someone with some excel or perl skills to take an excel/csv file like you describe and create a .bib file out of it.

Then, when you're writing, you use \cite{} commands to do your citations (or you can do them by hand and follow them with a \nocite{} command). When you're done, you just run bibTeX and bibTeX assembles your bibliography for you out of the things that you've cited (and nocited).

You don't need to import your database into LaTeX; LaTeX will import the pieces of it that you're actually using and create a references section for you out of a wide variety of formats.

On preview: a lot of universities also have thesis templates & stylesheets for Word, etc.

But because Word sucks, you can't trust them. Change printers and your pagination and margins can go all to hell, or, sometimes, just load the same file on different machines in the same cluster and it will print differently, which can easily destroy the weirdo formatting requirements of most theses.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:22 AM on May 5, 2005

ROU_Xenophobe, thanks for the introduction. I think I'll give it a whirl this summer - if I try it now, I'll never get my papers finished. It sounds great for larger papers. I've started using EndNote which is cool because you create your own little bibliography, then plunk each entry into papers as needed. I tend to use the same 100 sources for various papers, or at least I have this year (what's that? The rumblings of a field beginning to emerge? And not a moment too soon!) so I'll try the LaTeX and see how it goes. When I wrote an undergrad thesis that was around 100 pages, Word was already groaning and bibliographies are my own achilles heel. I hate writing them with a passion for some unknown reason.

Rumple, that sounds clear. I like to organize things by class as well, so that system sounds great and I think I may adopt it this summer as well. I have been trying to figure out how to organize the hundreds of articles and books I have laying around. Wow, my summer sounds so dorky!
posted by fionab at 12:26 AM on May 5, 2005

Word does suck, and its stylesheet thingies suck the most. I see the advantages of LaTex, but as noted above, its key whether the questioner needs to use it or if they have very simple formatting needs which Word can handle. I agree with advil's point that the writing-up stage of a thesis is not the time to start learning LaTex. Most thesis formatting requirements are extremely anal, but not demanding -- strict on margins, font, line spacing, etc. Where word REALLY breaks down is documents of several hundred pages with a lot of embedded images or figures. This describes some theses, but not all by any means.
posted by Rumple at 12:35 AM on May 5, 2005

With respect to Rumple, using Excel as a reference manager, especially when you want to produce a properly-formatted bibliography and references, strikes me as reinventing the wheel. The educational discounts for EndNote will make it a cheapish investment. EndNote is most useful if you're working in the sciences or social sciences where you're mainly citing articles, and don't need to store actual quotations. In the humanities, it's a bit lacking.

If you take the LaTeX route, there are a few nice bibliography managers that generate BibTeX files: BibDesk or BiblioTeX or BookEnds are all worth a look. The latter is the most powerful, and really bloody good.
posted by holgate at 4:10 AM on May 5, 2005

I love ProCite. I bet it's available through your university. EndNote is another. Excel seems messy.
posted by abbyladybug at 4:58 AM on May 5, 2005

AskMe: A jillion screaming zealots will descend upon you offering mostly contradictory advice.
posted by chota at 7:18 AM on May 5, 2005

Endnote has the advantage of being able to search databases and import the information, including abstracts. I rarely have to type in a reference (obscure books or footnotes). Once you have a library you can search on keyword or author. You can also give each paper copy a number, type it into endnote (there are comment sections). This way the number doesn't have to have any meaning. Put your articles in folders in numerical order, when you want one, search endnote, retreive the number and then find it quickly in the folder. Also works for articles you have downloaded as .pdf's, just put the number in the filename. LaTeX is fine for the sort of people who think VI is a great text editor...
posted by 445supermag at 7:47 AM on May 5, 2005

LaTeX is fine for the sort of people who think VI is a great text editor...

There's no reason you have to use vi or emacs. WinShell seems okay to the extent that I've played with it, and WinEDT is a nice, slick TeX-aware editor with pushbutton l33tness for texifying and for commands you don't use very often.

If you really want, you can always use LyX or Scientific Workplace for semi-wysiwyg stuff, but the resulting LaTeX will probably be a bit wonky.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:12 AM on May 5, 2005

Just to be clear -- I am not suggesting using it to produce formatted bibliographies which endnotes does superbly, but to keep track of all the miscellaneous articles, reviewss, images, permits, files, memos, letters, etc which I dont want to chuck, yet often don't have a clear filing priority category. By adding little taggy keywords you can find what you need with ctrl-f. Thats all, works for me. Good luck.
PS: Endnote student edition, academic discount is still 130$ Canadian, full version with educational discount is 240$.
posted by Rumple at 9:22 AM on May 5, 2005

Response by poster: I should clarify-- the reason I am concerned about LaTeX is because I'm writing an English thesis and have no need for special characters or anything, and I wonder if it is overkill to learn something when free time is already hard to come by. The formatting is very basic.

All I want to do really is have a database of the various sources I have compiled in my research that I can easily sift through (and the solution to have it organize my mess of a filing cabinet sounds attractive, too), search through, and then export the info into Word using the proper MLA format. I guess, from what I have read, that I am trying to make Excel and Word work together to do what Endnotes does so I can avoid buying Endnotes.
posted by synecdoche at 12:48 PM on May 5, 2005

If you're trying to get something done for this semester, don't bother with LaTeX.

If you hate fussing with your computer, don't bother with LaTeX. If the idea of looking at even simple bare html -- like dropping italics into a comment by hand -- irritates, scares, or annoys you, don't bother with it.

Assuming you're still with me, call / visit / email your math , physics, and CS departments and ask if there's a standard LaTeX class file for MA theses.

If there's not, don't bother with LaTeX. Assuming you're at UNBC, you might be out of luck.

If there is one, you'd lose a couple days to a week setting up LaTeX, modifying the class file so that it has the right department name and your committee members' names, and so on, and transferring your existing text. The payoff is that your thesis will be formatted correctly, and will probably look nicer than one from Word, and your bibliography will be correct. Unfortunately, nobody but you will have any good idea about whether beating Excel into submission, learning and using Endnote, or learning minimal LaTeX will be easiest and quickest for you.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:13 PM on May 5, 2005

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