Friday, June 10, 2005

Exploring Document Properties

Document Properties—the information Microsoft Word lets you attach to each document—is one of the most potentially useful, and most often overlooked, features in Word. Not only can you add a variety of descriptions, explanations, or instructions to your documents using Document Properties (very helpful if you are collaborating with others), you can also use the feature to find files by searching for specific properties. And there are utilities that let you export the properties to a text file, which you can then open in a spreadsheet or database program. This can be very useful if you are searching through a large collection of archived files.

To see what you may have been missing, take a moment to select File | Properties and browse through the dialog box, choosing each tab. You'll find a long list of fields, including custom fields you can create as needed.

When you create a document, Word fills in some fields automatically, among them Author (based on the current User Information in Tools | Options) and Title (based on the document's first line of text). But if you take the time whenever you start a new document to fill in some of the additional fields, you'll quickly find how useful the properties can be. Filling in Subject and Keywords helps you find this file when you need to, and you can add notes to yourself or to colleagues about the document in the Comments field, which is especially useful when a document is undergoing a series of revisions. To make this step automatic, you can tell Word to open the Properties dialog box whenever you first save a file. Choose Tools | Options, then Save, and make sure the Prompt for document properties box is checked.

To search for a document from within Word, choose File | Open, and then open the drop-down Tools menu at the top right of the Open dialog box, and choose Search. Word will open a Search dialog box that lets you specify where to search and the criteria to search by, including your choice of the various property fields.

Word's search feature isn't perfect. Some files regularly cause early versions of Word to show an error message and stop searching, though Word 2003 seems to have fixed this problem. Word sometimes crashes when searching a large number of files. And with Word 2003, some changes in settings—such as which file types to include in the search—don't work until you close the Search dialog box and reopen it.—Continue reading...

A more significant limitation is that the search feature doesn't let you print a table showing properties for each file archived in a folder, or even let you create a table on screen, let alone sort or select properties to help find the file you're looking for. There are utilities available, though, to perform these functions. Catalogue 4.2.8 from Soft Experience ($66, ) lets you extract the properties from all the Word files in a folder, view them in a table within the utility, and export them to a text file in comma-separated values (CSV) format. (Catalogue does much more; you can export to HTML or XML format, for example, and read metadata from other file formats, including other Office programs.)

Once the data is in CSV format, you can import the text file into a spreadsheet or database program that will let you search, select, and sort the information. Each line in the text file includes a filename and the document properties for that file, so each line will become a record in the database. With a spreadsheet, each row will hold one record, and each column will hold one property, or database field.

To import the CSV file into Excel 2003, for example, open a blank workbook in Excel and choose Data | Import External Data | Import Data. Navigate to the folder with the CSV file, select the file, and choose Open. On the Text Import wizard's first screen, specify that the data is Delimited. On the second, define the delimiter, which for Catalogue is a semicolon. You shouldn't have to change anything on the third screen, but it doesn't hurt to look though the choices to make sure the column data format is correct for each column.

Choose Finish. Excel will open the Import Data dialog box, and give you a choice between importing into the existing worksheet or a new worksheet. Choose Existing worksheet, and pick a cell for the upper left-hand corner of the table (A1 is generally the preferred location). Choose OK, and Excel will import the data.

Now you'll have a worksheet showing the name of each document, with whatever properties you extracted for it in the same row, one field per column. You can now use Excel's standard database features to sort and search for filenames, just as with any other database.

If you regularly use Document Properties to tag your Word files with identifying information, you'll find that locating the files in a search has never been easier.

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