The Typography Toolbar Extension for LibreOffice

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Nov 22, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

LibreOffice Writer is not actually a word processor -- it is more of an intermediate desktop publisher. Thanks to features such as page and list styles, you can design in Writer with much greater precision and ease than in Microsoft Office or Abiword. However, it lacks several features that would make it an advanced publisher, which is where the Typography Toolbar extension comes in.

As with other extensions, you can install the Typography Toolbar from Tools -> Extension Manager. The next time you re-start LibreOffice, the toolbar is listed in View -> Toolbars, currently lacking the penultimate "h" but all the same opening down the left side of the editing window. With 36 features, it forces you to scroll to see everything that's available, so you might want to drag it to the top or bottom of the window, or, better yet, undock it and resize the floating window so that it displays in two columns.

The Typography Toolbar is designed to work with Graphite-aware fonts. Graphite is a smart font technology -- that is, intended to make advanced typography features easier to use.

LibreOffice supports Graphite, but relatively few Graphite-enabled fonts are available. The three most widely-used are Gentium PlusLinux Libertine G, a metrical replacement for Times Roman, and Biolinum G, a sans serif similar to Helvetica or Arial but with somewhat more tightly spaced characters.

All three of these fonts are also available in versions that are not Graphite-enable. A Gentium Basic is in widespread use, and both Linux Libertine and Biolinum  have non-Graphite versions, which have the same name except for ending in an O. If you have any of these non-Graphite versions installed, you can delete them in favor of the Graphite-enabled versions; there is no advantage to keeping two versions, and telling the versions apart can be difficult in LibreOffice's narrow fields and drop-down lists.

Why you should use it
Besides punctiliousness, why should you care about Graphite features? Often, as with ligatures -- redesigned versions of letter combinations with awkward spacing, such as "ff" or "st" -- or an en dash, using the Typography Toolbar is simply quicker and more convenient than selecting Insert -> Special Character and scanning the rows and columns to find the character you want.

In other cases, the answer is consistency. LibreOffice is often at a loss about how to handle fonts with old style figures and small caps, in some cases using them by default, and in others listing them as separate weights of the font family. Not only is the inconsistency confusing, but, in the case of small caps, only they may available, but not the regular or Roman weight.

In still other cases, LibreOffice can cobble together an approximation of a proper character, such as a superscript, subscript or small cap, just as other word processors and publishers do. However, these makeshift substitutions rarely match the design of the font as well as the same characters that are part of the font design. Using the Typography Toolbar, you can use the features that are built-in to the metrics of the font, adding a small but definite improvement to the look of your document.

In addition, the Typography Toolbar also includes some features not found in LibreOffice. One such feature aligns the bottom of a page of text with footnotes by adjusting the vertical margins. Others reduce especially large spaces between words in fully justified text in favor extra spacing between words and can be applied as a finishing touch, or toggle a TeX mode for extra precision.

Applying features
The Typography Toolbar is set up for both manual and style-based formatting.

To manually apply a feature, highlight a section of text, then click the appropriate button on the toolbar. The highlighted text is only changed.

Alternatively (and more efficiently), you can make using the feature part of a character or paragraph style. The quickest way to do so is manually apply a feature, then select the update button while you are using the Default button. With a few minutes' work, you will have made all the changes you want.

However, if you prefer, you can enter the features you want directly into the Family field on the Font tab for styles, after the general name. For example, adjusting the Familyl field to read:

Linux Libertine G:smcp=1&onum=1

will set the current paragraph always to use small caps rather than regular capital letters, and old style figures. Notice that an ampersand (&) separates features, and that a "1" turns a feature on. If you want to disable a feature but not delete it altogether, all you would need is to change the 1 to zero. The Typography Toolbar's Help file gives a list of feature codes, as well as an example of the changes adding each feature results in.

Closing the last mile
Some users will find LibreOffice's built-in features are all they need. And fair enough -- the end of days will not descend on us if a two page memo that is recycled two minutes after it is read is not formatted to the highest standards.

However, for more permanent documents, or for those who want their work to be as polished as possible, the Typography Toolbar offers the finishing touches that LibreOffice lacks as installed. For such users, the extension fills a major gap in functionality.

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