Much of our genealogy research revolves around forms. And, while many of those forms – like census forms – are from outside sources, we often create our own customized forms to support our research efforts. These might be forms to help us index our collections or maintain research logs or create a cemetery inventory. I used to build a blank form in my word processing app and save it as a template file. That works well when each form is a single document, but what about a situation where the form is repeated several times within a single document?
I’ve been working on a guide to one of our local historic cemeteries for some time. It includes information from an early inventory and adds photos, additional information on the individuals buried there and more.
Basic data form used in my cemetery guide project.
My guide is being built in a sort of scrapbook style since I plan to include photos of the cemetery as well as documents, historical records and anything else that adds value to the cemetery’s history. I still need some structure for the details and to do that I’ve built a basic table to input a standard set of data items. You can see a sample of it here. This form will be used to generate a record for each entry documented in the early inventory, but it won’t necessarily appear on each page – especially once I start adding biographical information, images and scanned documents to the guide. So, in this case, a document template will not be very useful. Fortunately there is another option – a text replacement app like TextExpander [Mac - $34.99]. With it I can save a blank version of the table as a TextExpander form and, by typing a few characters, TextExpander will build this table for me at the point of my cursor. Using this method, I can easily create any number of “forms” within this document and include them when and where I want.
These “forms” are called snippets in TextExpander and they consist of two parts: 1) the text to be inserted and 2) the abbreviation that will be used to call the snippet. To create a snippet, I start by typing the text that will be my snippet. In my table example, it’s more than just text but that’s okay. TextExpander will capture the formatting as well as the characters that make up my form.
A blank form will become the content of my snippet.
Here you see the blank form I created in my Pages word processing app. You’ll notice that I’ve merged the two columns in the top row and set that font to bold. I’ve also turned off the gridlines for the table. I’ll see them here as I edit the tables, but they won’t appear in print or PDF versions of the document. Once I’ve got the form the way I want it, I’ll select the entire table and copy it. When TextExpander is running, there’s an icon on the menu bar at the top of your screen. Click it to display a menu similar to the one you see here.
Since I’ve already copied my table in Pages, I’ll choose the Create Snippet from Clipboard command. This will bring up the snippet management screen with the contents of my clipboard – the table – displayed in the Content pane as you can see in the example below. Notice here that you don’t see the ghost table grid that is visible in Pages. Don’t worry, it’s still there. Below the Content pane is the Abbreviation pane. Here I put the characters I want to associate with this content. It’s the text I will type to insert the table form in my document.
TextExpander snippet management screen.
Notice in the left pane that I have set up folders to organize my snippets. The selected folder will be the location where my current snippet is automatically saved. If you look at the contents of my Editing folder, you’ll see special characters, snippets of HTML code and even WordPress shortcodes. TextExpander for Mac works in any app so I can use it to quickly add a custom form that combines HTML and shortcodes inside a blog post as easily as I created my table form in Pages. Are you using Evernote for your research log? Use TextExpander to add the appropriate form into a blank note. The few characters you type to add the form is much faster than copy/pasting a template note.
It won’t take long to find any number of other uses . . . like the special character snippets for use in Twitter and snippets to ensure that I stay consistent in my use of the term “ebook”.
While at first glance, the $34.99 price tag for this app might look a bit steep, it has more than earned its keep in my workflow. As a forms manager it will quickly pay for itself, but that’s just the beginning. There’s also a TextExpander for iOS app [$4.99] which synchronizes the snippet library with the desktop version via Dropbox. It works with many of my favorite iOS apps such as Byword, Day One, Drafts and Notebooks to save me lots of time and effort.
Note that TextExpander isn’t the only text replacement application out there. Windows users can take advantage of the PhraseExpress app. For each of these apps, the details may be a bit different, but the basic concepts are the same.