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Getting organised: GCStar

18 May

I am not an organised person. Some people react to complex, interesting things happening in their lives by firing up Google Calendar, setting up a To-Do list on their PDA, and automating their address book. I react by going to bed, hiding under the covers and hoping it will all go away. The crowning glory of our civilisation, after all, is that we have reached the point where a large proportion of the human population can look forward to a life of happy tedium, unmarred by flood, famine, disease, war or violent death: why spoil it by deliberately going out and doing stuff?

But there are events I cannot ignore, and records I have to keep, and apart from the inevitable tax details, most of these relate to indexing work and my eBook collection. For eBooks I now use Calibre, which I will talk about later, but for keeping tabs on my indexing I use a customisable database program called GCStar. It’s available through the official repositories, but the source code for the newest version can be found at http://wiki.gcstar.org. Before GCStar I used Tellico, which is similar but — to my mind — a little less user-friendly. If you need a data manager then try both by all means, and see which you prefer.

So what does GCStar do? A screenshot might be useful at this point:

GCStar - Indexing data set

You can see there is a standard menu at the top, a small toolbar, and a lower panel separated by a movable divider into two panes. On the left there is a sorted and grouped list of publishers, and each publisher group can be expanded to show the individual items, which correspond here to individual indexing jobs. Only one level of grouping is available, but items can be grouped by any variable, so I could choose to see paid and unpaid jobs, jobs grouped by author, jobs grouped by contact person, jobs sorted by commencement date, and so on. The list can also be filtered, so it is pretty easy to locate any particular indexing job. Since I do about 70 per year, the list grows fairly quickly.

At the right is the information pane, with a tabbed display. I have chosen to break the information on each job into five sections: Book Details, Index Details, Preliminaries, Work, and Finalise. The Book Details section is shown above: below is a screenshot of the Index Details pane, slightly edited for privacy:

Index Details panelGCStar (like Tellico) comes with a set of predefined templates for various kinds of data sets. Some of these — notably the templates for book collections and music collection — come with live connections to the internet whereby the user can download information about the book or music track to fill in the fields automatically. But I built this one from scratch by adding and editing my own fields. Here’s the panel for Finalisation:

FinalisationThe previous two panels are similar, with a series of date fields which I can check off with the current date by pressing the ‘Select’ button that appears next to each field. This allows me to track the progress of a job through its various stages.

GCStar supports all the usual field types — text, comment, numerical, date, Yes/No, and multiple choice lists. Fields can be set to accumulate values and present them as choices in a drop-down list. The grouping of fields into panels, and the order in which they appear, is up to the user. All fields can be given a default, and numeric fields can be given a minimum, a maximum and an increment associated with a couple of spin buttons that appear at the left of the field. Ratings fields can be indicated by stars rather than numbers, as in the first screenshot above. GCStar saves records automatically to disk when they are changed — one up on Tellico, which requires the user to do this explicitly.

To make a new record I just click the Add button and fill in the details. If it is a close copy of an existing record then I can choose to duplicate that and edit it instead. I paste copies of any correspondence into the Comments fields, and at intervals during the indexing process I reopen GCStar and record where I am up to — usually this just involves a couple of clicks. At the end of the month I reconcile it against my invoices and record all payments.

GCStar is a more elegant and robust version of the sort of applications I used to home-brew in Microsoft Access for keeping track of invoices or indexing ongoing serials. It does a wonderful job and I recommend it highly.

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