TEX Helps in
Timely Publication of
The latest edition of the Trivandrum telephone directory, officially released yesterday, was processed and typeset with a range of free software tools that gave substantial savings on costs and time, and allowed the publisher, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL), to produce a neatly laid out and elegant publication ahead of schedule.
The two-volume directory, to be distributed to all subscribers of the Trivandrum Secondary Switching Area (SSA) from March 25, has 1,200 pages and 3.2 lakh entries. Four lakh copies of the directory are currently being printed by the city-based St. Joseph's Press (SJP), using typesetting software and programs provided by River Valley Technologies (RVT), a Trivandrum-based software house that has vast expertise in offering typesetting and publishing solutions using free and open-source software. (Free, open-source software is software whose source code is freely available for scrutiny, modification or distribution, unlike proprietary software, which is privately owned and closely held.)
For BSNL, this is the first complete directory to be published since 1999. According to K. Sreekantan Nair, Principal General Manager of the Trivandrum telecom district, BSNL has spent Rs 3.5 crores on printing the directory.
For SJP, this was a particularly prestigious order since it is the single largest printing job to be ever undertaken in Kerala. Says Fr. Mathew Thekkel, the then Manager of SJP, who supervised the project, "This was a bold drive aimed at the future and meant to prove the capability of St. Joseph's Press."
In the normal course, an order of this magnitude -- a print run of 4 lakh copies, each of 1,200 pages on 48 GSM white paper in three columns of Helvetica Narrow 7 point typeface, with 94 lines per column -- would have taken six months and involved around 50 employees wholly dedicated to the work.
However, in this case, SJP was able to beat the March 15 deadline set by BSNL and, according to Fr. Thekkel, will be able to finish the entire printing in four months, using a small team. At present, SJP's printing presses are operating 21 hours per day at their maximum capacity of 20,000 copies per hour to finish the directory printing.
The secret to the swift processing of the job was in the typesetting work done by RVT, says Fr. Thekkel. "But for the technology skills they have, we would not have quoted for the job," he adds. "Had we used the normal programs like PageMaker or QuarkXPress, we would have needed three months time," says Fr. Thekkel.
RVT, on the other hand, used a combination of free software programs to extract BSNL's data, process it and typeset it into camera-ready copy.
According to C. V. Radhakrishnan of River Valley Technologies, the BSNL data of telephone numbers, subscribers names and addresses was supplied as files in dBase, an outdated database software that goes back to the days of the DOS operating system.
Using a set of free software libraries downloaded from the Internet and locally customised, this data was extracted into the postgreSQL relational database, also free software, and then entirely recreated. RVT then wrote a Java program to pipe this newly generated database into TEX, a powerful typesetting engine and programming language, written by Donald Knuth of Stanford University and released in the public domain. From TEX, RVT produced the final output as Portable Document Format (PDF) files, using pdfTEX, a variant of TEX that writes out PDF directly.
"So powerful is TEX that it was able to process nearly 1,200 pages in just four minutes," says Radhakrishnan. "Not only that, since it is also a programming language, it is able to do several things automatically, like the generation of header markers, for example," he adds.
To incorporate corrections and editorial changes to the proof sheets, RVT designed a graphical spreadsheet interface for SJP. This also helped to save time in updating around 10,000 entries which had changed since the last directory was printed four years ago.
Fr. Thekkel forsees a great potential in the directory business, so much so that SJP is thinking of setting up a separate division for such work. The Department of Telecommunications has recently told its SSAs to print directories on their own, rather than rely on outside publishers, who often fail to deliver on time and in the required quantities. The Thrissur, Pathanamthitta and Tiruvalla SSAs are also due to publish their directories soon.