Going beyond PDF for the Web

Putting documents online is not necessarily tricky, but ensuring that users can take full advantage of the Web’s interactive capabilities is not always simple. Digitizing the thousands of equations in the "Handbook of Mathematical Functions" required development of some new Web tools by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The resulting Digital Library of Mathematical Functions is not just a graphic copy of the handbook posted online; it is a fully searchable and interactive resource.

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Hypertext Markup Language — HTML — is the traditional means of rendering text and images on a website, but using it for the digital handbook would have reduced the equations to static images. The NIST project used the LaTeX math authoring system to write mathematical expressions, MathML to display them, and created its own tool, LaTeXML, to translate LaTeX into Extensible Markup Language.

LaTeX is a document markup language and document preparation system for the TeX typesetting program used primarily to set complex mathematical formula, first written in the early 1980s. It is widely used in mathematics and computer science. By translating the mathematical expressions into XML, this material can be further manipulated for constructing websites with MathML and HTML.

LaTeXML was written by Bruce Miller, NIST physicist and DLMF information architect. It is written in Perl to mimic the behavior of TeX, but to produce XML rather than the Device Independent file format.

“It isn’t finished — there are gaps in the coverage, particularly in missing implementations of the many useful LaTeX packages,” Miller warns on the DLMF website. “But it is beginning to stabilize, and interested parties are invited to try it out, give feedback and even to help out.”

Although developed specifically for the DLMF project, LaTeXML is a general-purpose tool that is being used in other programs. As the largest single collection of math published in the MathML format, NIST expects the "Digital Library of Mathematical Functions" to be a catalyst for the adoption of this emerging standard and LaTeXML to help with that adoption.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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