Manipulating OOo Documents with Ruby

Who says you have to wait for some future OS to integrate your office documents with business applications you develop? Work with's XML-based documents using Ruby. (OOo), a featureful suite of office tools that includes applications for word processing, spreadsheet creation and presentation authoring, has seen an increase in enhancements and overall quality. OOo lives up to its name by making both source code and file formats completely open. This is a big plus for anyone wishing to manipulate documents without needing to have the creator application present.

In general, two ways exist to access or manipulate document content. One is to automate the source application, letting a program substitute for a person entering commands. The other is to go directly to the document. An advantage of the first approach is you get to exploit the power of an existing application, saving yourself a good deal of time figuring out file formats and processing commands. OOo can execute internal macros and expose a scripting interface through UNO. The downside is you need to have the actual application handy, and even then it may not be able to do what you want. This article describes the second approach: accessing and manipulating documents by going directly to the source.

OOo Extract

I first became aware of what could be done with an document when Daniel Carrera announced his OOoExtract program. This is a Ruby application that allows you to run command-line searches of OOo Writer document content. As the home page states, OOoExtract performs matches on both text content and styles, executes search patterns using full regular expressions and runs searches built with Boolean operators. The program runs on any platform that has a Ruby interpreter, and they are available for pretty much every OS around.

Ruby has been discussed before in Linux Journal, but if you are not familiar with it, a good though brief description might be to say it's a cross between Perl and Smalltalk, with some features from Lisp and Python. It is deeply object-oriented and has a clean intuitive syntax. Yukihiro “Matz” Matsumoto, its creator, released the first alpha version in 1994. It has grown steadily in popularity, and the Third International Ruby Conference was held in November 2003, in Austin, Texas.

To get a feel for OOoExtract, download the program; currently, you can get the application as a single executable file or as a tarball with constituent libraries in separate files. Once installed, we can create a simple Writer document and run some searches. If you have OOo handy, fire it up and enter some brief text, such as:

My sample document
It has two lines

Save the file as sample1.sxw to the same directory where you installed OOoExtract, and run OOoExtract from the command line, like this:

./ooo_extract.rb --text sample sample1.sxw
My sample document

The program searches sample1.sxw for any lines that match on the word sample. Actually, this is a regular expression, albeit a simple one. We also can use more complex expressions, such as this one that matches any three-letter word:

./ooo_extract.rb --text "\s\w\w\w\s"  sample1.sxw
It has two lines

This is all well and good, but OOoExtract really shines by letting us search on content metadata, the extra information about the text in our document. Suppose we add an additional line to our sample Writer document:

This one has some extra formatting

After entering the text, select the word extra and apply the Footer paragraph style. Save the file and run this search:

./ooo_extract.rb --style="Footer"  sample1.sxw
This one has some extra formatting

In addition to locating text based on content, OOoExtract also can give you text with specific markup. This is quite handy if you create your own semantically rich styles. You then can use OOoExtract to retrieve information based on content and meaning, effectively turning an Writer document into a lightweight database. You can run the program against multiple files by using wild cards in the filename. For example, suppose you store recipes in Writer files. If you've defined and used custom styles, you could locate specific information, such as what recipes have apples as an ingredient:

./ooo_extract.rb --text="apple" --style="Ingredient" recipes/*.sxw
AppleSalsa.sxw: 2 medium red apples
AppleStrudel.sxw: 4 cups peeled and sliced apples

The SXW File Format

So, how does OOoExtract do its magic? The secret is in the file format. Although any given Writer file has an sxw file extension, running the UNIX file command tells us that it is a zip file:

$ file sample1.sxw
sample1.sxw: Zip archive data, at least v2.0 to extract



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Re: Manipulating OOo Documents with Ruby

Anonymous's picture

I must point out that there is at least one mistake in the article. Sean Russell is the author of REXML. I had hoped the online article might had been edited with the proper information, but in the meantime please note the correction.


James Britt