March 2, 2006

Using Thunderbird as a context management tool

Author: Dmitri Popov

Despite the fact that there are quite a few document management systems (DMS) on the market, email remains for many the main tool for managing document workflow. Admittedly, an email client doesn't offer any advanced tools for managing files, but email's sheer convenience and ease of use are rather compelling reasons for sticking with the proven tool. In this article, I'll show you how to set up the Thunderbird email client as a context-centric document management system using folders, filters, views, and labels.

In one respect, email actually beats a conventional DMS. Quite often, a document is just part of a bigger picture; comments, reviews, and feedback from your peers create an important context that can't be separated from the document itself. While a DMS allows you to locate a document quickly, view its revision history, and manage access rights, it's not always as good at managing the context surrounding the documents. An email client, by contrast, is pretty good at keeping tabs on who said what and when about a particular document.

One could argue that while a DMS is a document-centric system, email is a context-centric solution -- a context management system, if you like. Your email client may be your tool of choice if the document context is more important to you than online collaboration, access privileges, and version control.

Let's say you're working on an article called "Alkylating DNA in the nucleosome" (as many of you certainly are) and you use email to send drafts and revisions to your editor and peers and to receive revised and commented versions back. First, you can create a folder structure that reflects your document flow. Thunderbird insists on sorting folders alphabetically, so you might want to use numbers at the beginning of folder names in order to sort them logically, like this:

Alkylating DNA
01_Drafts
02_Revisions
03_Final

The next step is to create a set of filters that sort the incoming messages into appropriate folders. The filters analyze the subject lines of the incoming messages, so you must use the article's name and the subfolder name in the subject line. For example, if you're about to send your article to the first revision, then the subject line should look like this: Alkylating DNA - Draft. When you receive a reply, the filters process it and put it in the appropriate folder.

Create templates

Instead of composing a properly formatted subject every time you write an email, you can set up email templates with predefined subject lines. In this case, you might want to create templates with the following subject lines:

ARTICLENAME - Drafts
ARTICLENAME - Revisions
ARTICLENAME - Final

To compose a template, create a new message and add the subject. While you're at it, you might want to add some standard body text, which will save you a lot of typing -- for example, "Please find attached the first draft of the article." Save the message as a template by choosing Save As -> Template. The next time you need to send a draft of an article, double-click on the appropriate template, replace the ARTICLENAME placeholder with the actual article title, attach the article, and you're all set.

Back to the filters; you have to create three of them -- one for each folder. A "draft" filter, for example, puts the incoming message into the Alkylating DNA -> 01_Drafts subfolder when it detects the article's name and the word Draft in the subject line. To create the filter, choose Tools -> Message Filters, make sure that the correct email account is selected from the "Filters for" list, and press the New button. Give the new filter a descriptive name (such as "Draft filter"), and select the "Match all of the following" option. Now create two conditions:

Subject - contains - Alkylating DNA
Subject - contains - Draft

In the "Perform these actions" section, tick the "Move to folder" checkbox, and select Alkylating DNA -> 01_Draft from the folder's drop-down list. Click OK to save changes and close the window. In a similar manner, create filters for the Revision, Proof, and Final folders.

Modify filters

This is all well and good, but the created filters are specific to a particular article. This means that you must create additional sets of filters or modify the existing filter for each article you're working on. The good news is that Thunderbird stores all filter settings in a plaintext file, so you can add and modify filters by editing the msgFilterRules.dat file. Depending on your email account type (POP or IMAP), the msgFilterRules.dat is located either in the Mail folder or in the ImapMail folder in your profile. Each filter configuration in the msgFilterRules.dat starts with the name line and ends with the condition. The Draft filter looks like this:

name="Draft Filter"
enabled="yes"
type="1"
action="Move to folder"
actionValue="imap://username@popserver/INBOX/Alkylating DNA/01_Draft"
condition="AND (subject,contains,Alkylating DNA) AND (subject,contains,Draft)"

If you want to modify the Draft filter for use with another article, copy it and replace Alkylating DNA with the article's name.

Customize your view

Using folders and filters offers is a good way to manage incoming messages and files, but Thunderbird has other tricks up its sleeve that make this system even more efficient. Thunderbird allows you to view messages as threads -- similar to Gmail's Conversations feature or threads in many newsreaders. To enable threading, specify the sorting options under View -> Sort by. Obviously, you must select the Threaded option, but you can fine-tune the way messages are displayed using other options as well (for example, try selecting the Order Received, Descending, and Threaded options).

If using threads is not your cup of tea, there are other ways to view messages the way you want. Under View -> Messages, you can choose between different options as well as create customized views. Labels can come in handy if you want to mark certain messages. To customize labels to suit your needs, choose Tools -> Options -> Display. Here you can change the labels' names and colors.

While Thunderbird will never replace a dedicated document management solution, it does include many features that you can use to manage email conversations and attached files. All you have to do is to make them work together. The described techniques provide a starting point for turning Thunderbird into a simple yet flexible tool.

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

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