A Writer’s Guide to Using Sidebars in LibreOffice
Part 6 of LibreOffice for Writers
How sidebars got to LibreOfficeIt was not inevitable. Sidebars came to Apache OpenOffice and LibreOffice by way of IBM.
Older versions of OpenOffice did not have sidebars. But, some years ago, IBM incorporated code from OpenOffice.org into IBM’s free office suite, Lotus Symphony. They eventually developed a sidebar interface for it.
After the main code repository of OpenOffice was donated to the Apache Foundation in 2011, IBM also donated the code for Symphony to the Apache Foundation to allow them to incorporate bug-fixes, redesigns, and new features to Apache OpenOffice. (IBM also ended further development of Symphony in favor of Apache OpenOffice.)
So, the Apache Foundation added sidebars to Apache OpenOffice. LibreOffice took the open source code and followed suit.
Thus, we have a fifth way to access commands in LibreOffice (and AOO): Menus, Toolbars, Contextual Menus, the Status Bar and, now, Sidebars.
Why use a sidebar?
Writers, for centuries, have been writing mostly in columns, partially because that was the easiest way to write on paper and, later, on typewriters. Likewise, most books (digital and paper) retain the “portrait” style of viewing text.
But most computer screens are not shaped like books, especially on laptops, where the screen form is dictated by the keyboard.
For writers, who organize text in pages, the horizontal screen is inefficient, resulting in a lot of scrolling up and down to find, read and edit things. At the same time there tends to be wasted space on the sides.
Sidebars allow writers to use that wasted horizontal space by allowing them to move formatting and other tools to the side, potentially freeing up the top and bottom for editing text.
How to Use LibreOffice Sidebars
Sidebars don’t actually add any new features. Instead, they reorganize many existing features into four distinct groups or decks (each deck supporting one or more panels). The four main decks are: Properties, Styles and Formatting, Gallery, and Navigator.
The Properties panel is for formatting your document. It has three modes – text, graphics and drawing – depending on what you are doing.
The text formatting sidebar tool shows when your cursor is in a text area. It has three panels for Character level, Paragraph level and Page level formatting.
After you format a section the way you want, you can use it as a sample to redefine and existing style or create a new style in the Styles and Formatting sidebar (see below). Or not. Your choice.
When you click on a graphic, the text formatting toolbar is replaced by a Graphics panel, which has 3 panels for Graphic (brightness, contrast, color mode and transparency); Position, and Wrap.
If you select a drawing, the sidebar shows three panels: Area (fill and transparency); Line styles; and Position and Size.
Styles and Formatting
Styles and Formatting gives you a way to define, use and apply formatting through stylesheets. You can apply and/or define styles for paragraphs, characters, frames, pages and lists. Using stylesheets is involved enough to deserve its own article (or maybe a whole book) in the future.
The Gallery is a library of vector graphics which you can drag and drop onto your document. Since they are vector graphics, they are easy to resize. After you drop in an image, you can switch back to Properties to adjust brightness, contrast, color mode, transparency, text wrap and more.
The Navigator is a sophisticated tool for navigating throughout your document by pages, bookmarks, and many other items. It’s particularly good for long documents. The Navigator may be headed towards its own article in the future, too.
Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?
As you use the Sidebar, you will find that part of the usefulness of it is that the different parts tend to work together:
Formatting and Styles
You can format characters, paragraphs and even pages with the Properties and then switch to Styles and Formatting to add it to character, paragraph and page style sheets.
You can create styles to and from your images, tables, charts, text boxes, and captions to keep the look of your work consistent.
Gallery to Properties to Navigator
Tying it all together:
In the Image dialogue box, enter a descriptive name into the Title box. (If you are writing a book with chapters, you could add the chapter number to the image title.) It would be useful and quicker if, in the future, if LibreOffice added the name box into the sidebar. (Hint. Hint.)
Go to the Navigator sidebar (it’s icon looks, more or less, like a compass). Click on Images to open the submenu. You’ll now see your name for the image here.
All this might not be so useful for writing projects of 2 or 3 pages, but the longer the document (perhaps chapters or a full book), the more useful the Navigator becomes.
Every time you add a graphic, a photo, a chart, or a table, use right-click to give it a recognizable name. If you are writing a book, you might add the chapter or section number or name. Then you can use the Navigator to easily find any image in your document. (This just scratches the surface of all you can do in the Navigator.)
Moving and Resizing the sidebar
The sidebar panel can be moved to the left or right side of your document, or floated (similar to Toolbars). If you have a multiple monitor display, the floated sidebar can be moved to a different monitor.
Clicking on any of the four main sidebar icons will open the sidebar panel. Click on the active panel icon and it will hide the panel, leaving a small access bar on the outside edge of the screen or window.
Halfway down the sidebar, alongside the scrollbar are a series of dots. These are not decorations, but actually an open / close button (a little bit too well hidden, in my opinion). Click on the button and it opens and hides the entire sidebar. When hidden, though, it is only a quick click away. There’s no real reason to use the Close Sidebar command unless you really don’t like sidebars.
When the sidebar is open, you can make it somewhat wider or narrower. Point at the border where the sidebar and the scrollbar meet and your cursor will turn into a double right-left arrow. Click and drag the mouse to resize.
Just as we saw earlier with Toolbars, you can use Tooltips and Extended Tooltips to help understand what each tool in the sidebar does. If you are new to LibreOffice or just new to the sidebar, this can be very helpful. (As with our earlier post on Toolbars, it also means we don’t have to write an icon-by-icon description for each item on the sidebar. Thank goodness.)
To show tooltips go to the Tools menu and select Options. From the LibreOffice menu tree, select General. Then, in the right panel, under Help, simply check or uncheck the Tips and Extended Tooltips options.
Icons in the sidebar match the ones in the toolbars. (We discussed how to switch icon sets in our Toolbars article.)
Problems with Sidebars
Some people will find Sidebars a welcome addition to their LibreOffice (or Apache OpenOffice) interface. They offer a new way to look at LO’s formatting tools and group them together nicely. There are a few quibbles, however.
- Although they are on the side of the screen, they do take up more room than Toolbars. There is still a tradeoff of space to convenience, but being able to minimize and enlarge toolbars with a single click helps a lot.
- You cannot right-click on any item on a sidebar as you can on a toolbar.
- There are no extra hidden commands to access on the Sidebar. What you see is all that you get.
- You cannot customize the sidebar by removing or adding features, as you can with Toolbars.
- Toolbars do not highlight (or underline) keyboard shortcuts as Menus do.
Finally, there are tools that I would like to see added to the sidebar area.
My Sidebar Wish List
When sidebars first came to AOO and LO in 2013, I wrote an article including my personal wish list of sidebars to see in the future. (See my article What LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice Have Taught Me.) Today, my wishes are pretty much the same:
- Find and Replace would be excellent in the sidebar! You’d never have to worry about search results hiding under the search box.
- Dictionary and thesaurus tools would work well in the sidebar; both the installed tools and access to similar web tools. You could then add Wikipedia, grammar checkers, translation tools, and other reference sites, too.
- Sidebar access to LibreOffice’s (and Apache OpenOffice’s) own online help files and templates seem like a natural, especially to people still learning to use the program. (Aren’t we all?)
- A mail merge tool sidebar also seems like a great idea.
- Autocorrect could also benefit from an always-available sidebar.
Likewise, a new HTML toolbar/sidebar could be a boon to bloggers and web designers, as would integration with WordPress. But, perchance I dream too much.
With some of these additions, I probably would keep sidebars open all the time while writing. As it is, most of my writing is for blogging and, while substantial, does not require much formatting (except in Markdown or HTML), so I don’t generally use sidebars. When I return to long form writing, though, I’ll probably use sidebars a lot.
This ends our series of using LibreOffice menus, toolbars, the status bar, contextual menus and sidebars for writers.
As a writer, you need to choose which manner of interaction works best for you. If you are a power typist and love keyboard shortcuts, you will probably like menus and their keyboard shortcuts. If you’re mousing around, you have several choices. If you are a refugee from Microsoft Office ribbons, you might find sidebars offer a good visual interface while using traditional menus.
Soon, we’ll try to tackle LibreOffice’s Find and Replace, the Navigator, and (if I’m feeling particularly brave and industrious) using Stylesheets.
How do you like to access LO Writer’s features? Tell us in the comments.
See our other recent articles on Using LibreOffice for Writers:
Opening photo of Colorado Cowboys is a detail of a photo from History Colorado.
Screen shots are by the author, with thanks to Greenshot, the open source screen capture tool.