Readers of TidBITS know of my unabashed obsession with the storage and retrieval of information, especially the free-form textual information an academic must track and manipulate in order to write lectures, books, and articles. So when a new piece of software, Palimpsest, turned out to be created especially for people like me, it didn’t take Nostradamus to predict I’d be intrigued. And when Palimpsest turned out to combine word-processing elements with features of cool tools like HyperCard, Storyspace (see TidBITS-095), Conc, and FreeText – and written, to top it all off, using Prograph (see TidBITS-312) – I was downright interested.
Palimpsest comes from Western Civilisation, an Australian company. It started as a private way of managing thousands of pages of legal documents; now it’s released to the world for managing, investigating, and relating electronic documents generally. (A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been rubbed out and written over, and no, I didn’t have to look it up; I used to be a classicist, remember?) You can learn more about Palimpsest at their Web site, or download a demo from Info-Mac.
The Basic Milieu — You use Palimpsest to read, create, navigate, and investigate Palimpsest documents. If your documents aren’t initially Palimpsest documents, you can create a Palimpsest document and either paste (or drag & drop) material into it, or import material as styled text from SimpleText.
Using Palimpsest looks and feels rather like using HyperCard. You probably will have several windows that look like HyperCard stacks, each consisting of one card dominated by a scrolling field of styled, editable text. Each "stack" is actually called a Section, and Sections are bound together behind the scenes into a Document. Each Section can itself be subdivided by Headings. Here’s how Documents, Sections, and Headings are related:
A Heading is merely a piece of text to which you have applied the Make Heading command. Using a floating windoid called the Heading Browser (which displays the Headings in whatever Section is frontmost) you can give each Heading a level, so that they appear in a hierarchical, outline-like relationship to one another. (This hierarchy is purely conceptual; it has no visible analogue within the text of the Section itself.) Double-clicking a heading in the Heading Browser jumps you to that place in the Section.
Similarly, a Table of Contents window lists the Sections of the Document in a meaningful order, like chapters in a book. You can change the order by dragging the Section listings, and each Section listing can expand to show the Headings it contains. Again, you can double-click a Section or Heading listing in the Table of Contents to go there.
You can also navigate from Section to Section conveniently with a pop-up menu in the lower left corner of each Section window, which lists all Sections of the Document.
Section Types and Document Types — Sections come in Types, which are like HyperCard backgrounds: for instance, if a typical Section of a particular Document is of the "Chapter" type, then the physical layout of each Chapter Section is identical, differing only in the contents of its fields. Documents come in Types too, each consisting of the Section types it can contain. At any time, you can alter a Document by adding a new Section of any type which that type of Document can contain.
There are also automatic Section types: the Table of Contents is itself a Section type, but you can’t create a new one; every document automatically contains exactly one Table of Contents, as well as one Title Page and one Cover. You can, however, modify these Sections – for instance, you can paste a picture on the Cover.
A Document Type and the Section Types that constitute it form a template instantly affecting all Documents of that type. You can modify an existing Document type, or create a new Document type. To do so, you draw the layout of its Section types, possibly by modifying existing Section types to make the process faster. You can change the size of a Section’s window (its "card" size); you can add or resize Section fields (like "card fields", their contents are unique to each Section) or Document fields (like "background fields", their contents are shared among all Sections in which they appear). You can also give a field a name, a style (e.g. scrolling or not), an initial text, initial text-style attributes, and so on. All this can be done intuitively, as in HyperCard or FileMaker.
Slicing the Cake — What I’ve described thus far is a convenient method of dividing, formatting, and navigating a document, but it isn’t all that different from what you might do with a word processor. The interesting part comes when you start to slice through the Document’s divisions, to examine and navigate your Document in new ways.
For example, you might do a Search on a particular word or set of words you’re interested in. The results appear as a new window showing every matching occurrence, one per line, each with some context around it – in effect, a customized concordance to a Document. If you double-click a line of context, you jump to that spot in the actual Document.
You might also create a hypertext link between two places in a Document. Such links are documented in a Cross-Reference Details window, showing you all links emanating from the selected text, and letting you specify a comment, an author, and a label for each link. So, you’re not only linking to another location but annotating and categorizing the link as well. Later, having selected some linked passage, you can either follow the link or open the Details window. Thus, hypertext links aren’t just navigational shortcuts; they’re also discussions of your reasoning in associating various passages.
Palimpsest also has Annotations, which are like the comments attached to hypertext links but without linking to any other passage. Opening a passage’s Annotation window is like reading a hidden footnote about it.
You can also get three sorts of "live" summaries of hypertext links (by "live" I mean you click a link to jump there):
A floating windoid called the Cross Reference Browser lists all passages in the current section from which hypertext links emanate. (Similarly, there is an Annotation Browser.)
You can obtain a list of all passages at the far end of links which emanate from the current Section or Document; this is called a Web View.
- You can obtain a list of all links you have traversed or examined since Palimpsest was started up; this is called Paths.
The Big, Big Picture — So far, I’ve talked as if you work with only one Palimpsest Document at a time. But Palimpsest is intended to manage and relate multiple Documents. Hypertext links can run between Documents, and searches are performed over multiple Documents. What’s more, there are two further entity types to help you.
First, there’s the Paper. A Paper is a single window with one large scrolling text field in it, nothing more. It’s meant in part as a place to take notes while you work. A Paper can also have Headings, hypertext links, and Annotations. The hypertext linking lets the Paper serve also as a repository for references to various passages in Documents, and certain special features assist with this. For instance, you can paste a passage copied from a Document into a Paper and have the pasted material be a hypertext link back to the Document passage, all in a single move. And the results of Searches, as well as Web Views and Paths, can be saved into a Paper as hypertext links, letting you quickly assemble live references to related material.
Second, there’s the Study. A Study is a clickable list of Documents (and Papers) with a possible brief comment on each one. (There is also something called the Archive – there’s only one – which lists all Studies.) Studies allow you to impose upon a large collection of Documents as many different categorizations as desired. Again, you can translate Search results, Web Views, and Paths into Studies to save time, and comments can help explain why you’ve brought these Documents together in this configuration.
So, for example, if I were writing an article on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and I had all the scholarship on the subject over the past 40 years turned into Palimpsest Documents, then I might keep track of the scholarship in Studies – one Study listing all articles dealing with the Anger of Artemis, another listing all articles dealing with the Hymn to Zeus, and so on. Meanwhile, I could write my own article as a Paper, using hypertext links to help manage references and using the link comments to remind myself of the relationships amongst the various referenced passages.
Teething Pains — In any software’s early days there are bound to be shortcomings, and I felt there was plenty of room for small improvements in the version I saw. Some behaviors were slow. Windows didn’t remember their sizes and positions. Windoids couldn’t be resized, and were too small to be useful. Hypertext link labels couldn’t be edited. It was difficult to know where the end of a hypertextually linked passage was, so you could easily extend it accidentally. Wider import/export capabilities (using XTND, perhaps) were needed.
However, these quibbles are minor – and temporary. Western Civilisation is a responsive company, and fully expects to incorporate fixes and user suggestions. A faster PowerPC-native version has just been released, and most of the points I raise above are slated for fixing.
Granted, Palimpsest probably doesn’t do any one of its various functions as well as a program dedicated to that function alone: it doesn’t process words as well as a real word processor, or manage hypertext with the ease of Eastgate’s Storyspace, or build its concordances with the flexibility of Conc. The important thing, however, is that it recognizes the need to juggle, analyze, relate, read, and write about large numbers of electronic text documents. Once you’ve seen the Search (concordance) and hypertext tools in action, it becomes obvious how badly needed they’ve always been. For $50 you get a fully working copy and free updates for a year – a very decent price. If you think Palimpsest might have a place in your electronic world, you owe it to yourself to download and try the free demo.
Western Civilisation Pty. Ltd. — +61 2 9130 1731 (Australia)