BibDesk trend-setting and metadata

This is what I’ve been waiting for! Some context may be required with this sentence, I admit.

A new version of BibDesk has been released, which is a bibliography-managing application that does all its work off BibTeX-formatted files. Just a front-end, for now. In the future, they plan to abstract the file format from the bibliography format itself, to allow for nice things that are a bit kludgy or impossible when you’re simply adding plain text to a .bib file.

I didn’t get into BibDesk for a long time, primarily because it didn’t support macros; references to strings that could be changed after the fact if you need to create a bibliography with abbreviated journal titles, for example. Besides that, it didn’t seem to add too much to my experience of manually editing the .bib file by hand.

I’m not sure when the project turned from Michael McCracken’s baby into a fantastic example of open source development, but it’s really a stellar example of what is possible with some volunteers with spare time working with Cocoa.

So why am I so suddenly enthusiastic? (I’ve noticed that people closer to the project itself have in fact been similarly so for quite some time now; in anticipation, I must assume.) BibDesk deals with metadata in a way that makes sense and makes it easy, but most importantly, makes the metadata relevant. (Sorry about the emphasis overuse.)

We’ve (or I’ve) been ignoring keyword fields for years, wondering “what’s the point, really?”, even though it can help for searching quite a bit in certain circumstances. But the new BibDesk will (in real time) organise and sort bibliographic entries by arbitrary metadata, which for bibliographic entries is most usefully keywords. (It has always been possible to add extra fields to a BibTeX database, they are just silently ignored if they are unknown.) Keyword groupings will be populated as you add keywords to articles, and keywords will be added to entries that are dragged into they keyword folders. Moreover, they’re non-exclusive. Keywords of “red, exciting” will turn up in both the “red” and “exciting” groups.

You’ll note that iTunes should have had this a long time ago; iTunes is the only application I can think of that deals with metadata in anywhere near a comprehensive fashion to be note-worthy. And it falls far short of where we should be in 2005. (Note I did include this as a feature request in my iTunes complaints, but it was closed as a duplicate. If it’s a duplicate, dammit, then why didn’t they roll it into v5/6? No progress…)

I’ve seen demonstrations of this idea of metadata organisation in a Longhorn demonstration a while ago, which works for every file in your file system. (I wrote about this , among other things, at the time at MacMischief. Boy, that gig didn’t last long.) Mac OS X 10.5 has got to have some pretty fancy things up its sleeve, especially for the Finder.

Mac OS X’s Spotlight is impressive, but it solves a different problem. It helps you find; but managing metadata like BibDesk does now and like Windows Vista will is able organising information and keeping track of it. Half the point is that it allows you to add the metadata to your information that you desperately need for the Spotlight searches.

This ramble has gone long enough, given that I was due home for dinner ages ago. Anyway, in summary: new BibDesk = very impressive. It will be a trend-setter for all applications in the future dealing with metadata in a complex way. And something tells me that won’t be a small field.