June 21, 2006

Collecting and organizing "stuff"

Author: Dmitri Popov

Organizing disparate pieces of data on the hard disk and from the Web is a tricky proposition. For example, as I am learning Japanese, I have hundreds of text notes, images, loose Web pages, scanned articles, and other small pieces of data, which I refer to as "stuff." Desktop search applications can locate files and find text in them, but they cannot organize anything. Putting things into separate folders doesn't really solve the problem. Fortunately, two utilities, ScrapBook and BasKet, help me collect and organize "stuff" in a structured fashion.

Let's start with collecting and archiving Web pages and entire Web sites. Many utilities allow you to download a Web site and view it offline, including wget and HTTrack, but a more elegant and powerful tool for the job is the Firefox extension ScrapBook. With ScrapBook, you can collect and archive Web pages without leaving your browser. More importantly, ScrapBook allows you to not only archive Web pages and entire Web sites, but also to edit them.

Saving Web pages in ScrapBook couldn't be easier: open the Web page you want in Firefox and drag its link from the Address bar to the ScrapBook sidebar (to open the sidebar, press Alt-K). This quick-and-dirty method allows you to capture the currently viewed page. If you want to fine-tune ScrapBook's saving options, select the Save Page As command from the ScrapBook menu. Using the Capture Detail dialog box, you can select how "deep" ScrapBook should follow the links on the page, as well as whether you want to download linked media files and archives. But that's not all; ScrapBook can also save pages from all currently opened tabs as well as capture multiple URLs in one go.

Besides pages and Web sites, you can use ScrapBook to save text snippets. Simply select the text on the Web pages and drag it onto the ScrapBook sidebar. Finally, using the Notes feature, you can use ScrapBook as a simple note-taking tool.

Now what?

Once you've added pages to ScrapBook, you can do all kinds of things with them. First of all, you can organize them into folders. Create a folder by pressing the New Folder button in the ScrapBook sidebar, then drag the saved pages onto the folder. If one scrapbook is not enough, you can enable the Multi-ScrapBook feature and easily switch between different scrapbooks. You can also combine several captured pages into one file by choosing the Combine command from the Tools menu in the ScrapBook's sidebar. Moreover, the Import/Export feature gives you the ability to exchange the captured pages with other ScrapBook users, while the Backup feature ensures that nothing bad happens to your ScrapBook contents. There is even an Emergency Repair command that helps to fix problems with the archived data.

That's all fine and dandy, but what makes ScrapBook so special is its editing capabilities. When you open the saved Web page in the browser, the Edit bar appears at the bottom of the main window. The bar contains the Comment Area, which allows you to add comments to the page, as well as four tool buttons: Highlight, Pencil, Eraser, and DOM Eraser. There are also self-explanatory Undo and Save buttons. As the name suggests, the Highlight tool can be used to highlight text selections in the text, and if you click on a small triangle next to the button, you can choose between different highlight colors. The Pencil button contains several handy tools. Using them, you can attach a link or a file to the selected text as well as add inline annotations. And, of course, you can use the tool to add sticky notes to the page. Actually "sticky notes" is a bit of a misnomer, since you can add floating notes like those in Adobe Acrobat. Last but not least, you can use the Eraser and DOM Eraser buttons to remove unwanted tags and text fragments from the page.

ScrapBook also includes a search feature that allows you to search through the stored pages. Better yet, it supports regular expressions, which allow you to perform sophisticated searches.

Toss stuff in a BasKet

Once you start getting organized, your next step is to clean up stuff on your computer, and you will be hard pressed to find a better tool for the job than BasKet. This KDE utility allows you to store and categorize virtually any type of data: text snippets, URLs, images, files, and it can even act as an application launcher. Better yet, you can put your data into different "baskets," which makes it significantly easier to categorize stuff.

Adding stuff to BasKet is as easy as dragging and dropping it into a basket. BasKet allows you to organize your stuff in many different ways. For example, for my Japanese-related stuff, I have a "Japanese" basket containing links to useful Web sites such as online dictionaries and references, the latest lesson podcasts, PDF files containing lesson notes and glossaries, and launch items for GJITEN Japanese-English dictionary and jVLT vocabulary learning tool. Using this single basket, I have instant access to all the relevant stuff.

When you don't need BasKet, you can tuck it away in the system tray, ready to pop up when you need it. And if you need to share your stuff with other users, you can export your baskets as HTML pages. There is also a Web-based version of BasKet called WeBasKet. Although it is not on a par with the desktop version of the utility, you can use it to store your stuff in Web baskets that you can access from any browser.

Collecting and, more importantly, organizing small pieces of disparate data can be a challenge, but tools like ScrapBook and BasKet leave you no excuse for not keeping tabs on your stuff.

Dmitri Popov is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Russian, British, and Danish computer magazines.

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