A Smarter Open Recent Files Function in Office

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I’m talking about LibreOffice or OpenOffice, but the concept applies to any office suite. Specifically, we are talking here about the behvioar of the “Open Recent Documents” function under the “File” menu on the typical Office style application. This menu item shows you the most recent several documents you’ve had open, so you can re-open one right away.

Here is my typical workflow. I open, work on, and save maybe a half dozen documents in LibreOffice Writer over a period of days. These are “word processor” documents which you could (incorrectly) refer to as “Word documents” in the same manner you refer to nose wiping tissues as “Klenex.” I can use the “Open Recent Documents” menu item to re-open these files pretty much every time, and that saves a lot of time and trouble.

Then, I get into some sort of numerical analysis for a day, and between converting and processing data, making a number of different passes at the data, and making graphics, I open, work on, and close (and often toss out) a dozen or more spreadsheets. Then, I go back to the word processing documents and hit “Open Recent” and the word processing documents have been pushed so far down the list they are either harder to find or, importantly, not there at all.

A version of this work flow: I really don’t use that many “office” documents over a period of time (I do most of my writing in a text editor, and numerical work in other applications like R), but there are a few that I frequently open to refer to, but will ignore for a week or two at a time. I always know where these documents are so I can easily find them via the normal methods, but the first place I tend to look, and they are generally there, is under “Recent Documents” on the file list. But, often enough to be annoying, these documents have been pushed off the recent documents list as well.

Here is an embriefended version of the way this menu item works, mixing up and including all the files across different applications:

For the Microsoft users among you, “odt” and “ods’ extensions refer to word processing (text) and spreadsheet documents, respectively.

This problem could be easily fixed if only the LibreOffice Writer (the word processor), LibreOffice Calc (the Spreadsheet) and LibreOffice Presenter (the “Power-Point” like application) had their own separate “Open Recent Document” menu items.

So, I looked into it, and discovered that this feature has been requested numerous times over several years by several people, and on the LibreOffice site has been relegated to what is essentially a “solved bug” because the makers and maintainers of LibreOffice have decided that this is normal and preferred behavior. I’ll tell you about the proposed solution (by the LibreOffice activists) and the actual solution (that you can use and that I use) below. But first, a word about the reason this “bug” is considered a feature by those who give us LibreOffice, and why they are wrong. But before I do even that, I’ll note that we all love LibreOffice, and kudos to those who work to give it to us! Even if they are blindingly wrong on this one point!

There are two reasons given for not offering a “documents previously opened by THIS HERE APPLICATION NOT THE OTHER APPLICATIONS in the Office suit!” menu item.

1) LibreOffice does not use extensions to determine what kind of application should open a file, but rather, it inspects the file and looks inside for secret clues that it knows about.

This is a lousy excuse because all we are asking for is to list the files that were previously used by THIS APPLICATION. The fact that the software uses the internal clue rather than the extension is irrelevant.

There is another interesting reason this is wrong-ish, though this reason is not needed to force the point. It is true that from the beginning, Linux, as a Unix like operating system, has used internal clues rather than file name or extensions to determine file type. You probably know what a shebang line is, as an example of this, where text files (and most files historically were text files on Linux and Unix machines) are internally identified. This is a good thing. Extensions are a silly Microsoft thing. But, at the same time, a) you can actually use both and have a pretty straight forward system for keeping track of files and file types, and b) more and more user-oriented software is using extensions usefully in Linux user land, so why not use this convention for office documents?

2) The paradigm for using an Office Suite, according to the thinking and philosophy of LibreOffice folks, goes back to an old Next-esque philosphy that spread across the Unix and Linux world in the old days. It goes like this. Documents are documents, and software is/are tools. So you should be able to open documents independently of the tools you use to work on them. So, an “open recent document” functionality should ignore silly fetishes like which kind of software (spreadsheet, word processor, etc) you are using on the documents. Thus, the “Open Recent File” menu item should be indifferent to file type.

The problem with this, of course, is the philosophy is what I would call “vaporthink.” Much like Vaporware, software that sounds great but really doesn’t exist, this document and tool oriented philosophy simply doesn’t exist, and adherence to it is merely clogging up our “Open Recent Document” menu item lists. So just stop it, would you?

Here are the solutions for this problem

1) First the solution given by LibreOffice “ADMIN” in an anonymous interchange the other day. Rewrite the software so it works better for you. This is OpenSource software, after all.

2) Use “History Master,” an Office extention that probably works in OpenOffice and LibreOffice (I’m using it in the latter, seems to work) which gives you the functionality that is apparently impossible. Like this:

This is the web page to download the History Master extension.

Once installed it will (maybe after restarting Office?) show up under the file menu as a new item.

One of the reasons given for the all-application list is that certain file types can and often are opened by two applications, like “.csv” file. True. Note, however, that History Magic allows access to all the files at any time, and it does not replace, but rather, works along side the “Open Recent” item. So that “problem” is just an excuse.

I’m not sure about the long term prospects of “History Magic” as a maintained extension, though it seems to be up to date now. Maybe if a bunch of you’all download it, there will be a greater chance of its long term survival.

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3 thoughts on “A Smarter Open Recent Files Function in Office

  1. I suspect another reason the LO devs aren’t in a hurry to change this function is because the majority of users are on Windows, and Windows fixes this itself via the “jump list” feature. On my Windows boxes all the jump lists are application specific so right clicking Draw shows me only the recent drawings, Calc only shows spreadsheets, etc. On top of this there is a pinning function for jump lists so I pin documents that I know I’ll revisit every month or two so they don’t scroll off the list ever.

    As soon as I move to one of my *nix boxes I curse the fact that LO mixes the doc types together and less than 50% of the time the doc I want is in the list.

    1. Linux KDE desktop does this as well, and it is divided by type correctly. Gnome probably does it as well, not sure.

  2. You’ve probably seen this and updated already, but in the unlikely case that hasn’t happened: there have been two announcements about security flaws that leverage the ODT format — they can access a Python library on your machine (applies to Open Office and Libre Office). Basically a library in the office system itself will take outside commands and execute them. Reports and proof of concept code + video were sent to the relevant organizations.

    Libre Office seems to have a patch for the issue available, but it isn’t clear that Open Office does. I don’t know if updates are pushed automatically to end-users or whether you have to request them.

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