Keeping Your Latex Distribution Up-To-Date On Linux Systems

The Problem of Package Version Mismatches

LaTeX distributions like Tex Live or MiKTeX bundle together many LaTeX packages and programs. Over time, the packages in these distributions can become outdated as new versions are released upstream. Using outdated packages can lead to version mismatch errors and compatibility issues.

For example, if you have Tex Live 2022 installed but try to use a LaTeX template or document class that relies on features added in the 2023 release, you may see cryptic errors like this:

! LaTeX Error: File `geometry.sty' not found.

Type X to quit or  to proceed,
or enter new name. (Default extension: sty)

This happens because your locally installed geometry package is too old for the template, which expects a newer version with additional functionality. Keeping your full LaTeX distribution updated prevents these kinds of package conflicts.

Updating Your LaTeX Distribution

The major LaTeX distributions available on Linux include:

  • Tex Live - The most popular LaTeX distribution on Linux. Available directly through most package managers.
  • MiKTeX - A widely used LaTeX system on Windows, also available on Linux. Easy to update through its package manager.

Updating Tex Live

Tex Live can be updated by running the tlmgr command that comes bundled with your installation. For example, to fetch the latest package updates you would run:

sudo tlmgr update --all

This will download all packages where an updated version has been published. You can also use tlmgr to update just specific packages, search repositories, and configure how Tex Live patches itself.

Updating MiKTeX

The MiKTeX package manager offers a graphical interface to update your entire LaTeX distribution. Simply open MiKTeX and click on the "Update" tab. This will check online for any packages where new versions are available and guide you through updating them.

You can also update MiKTeX from the command line using tools like mpm that come as part of the distribution.

The Benefits of Updating

Keeping your LaTeX distribution updated brings many benefits including:

  • Avoiding package conflicts from version mismatches
  • Gaining access to the latest features and bug fixes
  • Ensuring compatibility with modern LaTeX templates and documents
  • Preventing build issues or compilation errors

It's generally recommended to update your entire LaTeX distribution at least once per year or when installing any major new packages.

Managing Local TeX Packages

Sometimes you may not have permission to update the system-wide LaTeX installation. In this case, you can still install packages locally inside your home directory to supplement the core distribution.

Installing a Local TEXMF Tree

TeX Live and MiKTeX allow adding custom package directories called TEXMF trees. To set one up:

  1. Create a texmf folder in your home folder. For example, ~/texmf
  2. Under ~/texmf create the subfolders tex/latex/
  3. Install any custom .sty or .cls packages into that latex folder

Now LaTeX will search this folder tree for packages not available in the system directories.

Configuring Search Paths

You need to tell your LaTeX distribution to look in the custom TEXMF tree. Do this by adding a line to your LaTeX config file named texmf.cnf:


From now on pdflatex, xelatex or any LaTeX compiler will check this folder for needed packages and styles.

Automating LaTeX Updates

Instead of manually updating LaTeX, you can configure automatic updates to keep your system always patched:

Command Line Scripts with Cron

The Cron task scheduler built into Linux allows running commands on a fixed schedule. To use it:

  1. Open crontab - crontab -e
  2. Add a line like:
    0 12 * * * tlmgr update --all

This would run the TeX Live update command daily at 12 PM. You can customize the timing as needed.

Built-In Updaters

Both MiKTeX and more recent versions of TexLive also have built-in options to enable automatic updating. For example, passing the --auto-install flag for MiKTeX and TexLive's autobackup package.

Enabling these features will patch your LaTeX distribution silently in the background whenever you compile a document requiring an updated package.

Version Control Notification

Some Linux package managers like apt can automatically email administrators whenever new package versions are released into their repositories. This provides a simple notification to update your LaTeX distribution periodically.

Troubleshooting Updates

Updating dozens of interconnected LaTeX packages can sometimes cause issues. Here's how to debug problems:

Diagnosing Version Mismatches

If you get unusual LaTeX compiler errors after updating, first determine the exact package causing issues:

  • Narrow down by disabling packages until the error disappears
  • Explicitly check version headers of key packages
  • Compare headers with changelog listings online to spot outliers

Rolling Back Packages

If an update is broken, use your package manager to downgrade just the problem packages:

tlmgr install backlatex 2021

You can also uninstall all packages and revert to the last LaTeX snapshot your system manager keeps.

Getting Help

If you have trouble resolving update issues, the LaTeX project maintains active mailing lists and Stack Exchange sites to get help from the community.

When reporting issues, detail your OS, LaTeX distribution, versions of key packages, and any error output to help others reproduce and debug.

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