(or emacs irrelevant)

Using Recoll desktop search database with Emacs

I know that most Emacs hackers love the simplicity and usability of grep, but sometimes it just doesn't cut it. A specific use case is my Org-mode directory, which includes a lot of org files and PDF files. There are just too many files for grep to be efficient, plus the structure of PDF doesn't lend itself to grep, so another tool is required: a desktop database.

I got into the topic by reading John Kitchin's post on swish-e, however, I just couldn't get that software to work. But as a reply to his post, another tool - recoll was mentioned on Org-mode's mailing list. In this post, I'll give step-by-step instructions to make Recoll work with Emacs.

Building Recoll

I'm assuming that you're on a GNU/Linux system, since it's my impression is that it's the easiest system for building (as in make ...) software. Also, it's the only system that I've got, so it would be hard for me to explain other systems.

If you want to toy around with the graphical back end of Recoll, you can install it with:

sudo apt-get install recoll

Unfortunately, the shell tool recollq isn't bundled with that package, so we need to download the sources. The current version is 1.20.6.

Extract the archive

After downloading the archive, I open ~/Downloads in dired and press & (dired-do-async-shell-command). It guesses from the tar.gz extension that the command should be tar zxvf. By pressing RET, I have the archive extracted to the current directory. I've actually allocated ~/Software/ for installing stuff from tarballs, since I don't want to put too much stuff in ~/Downloads.

Open ansi-term

I navigate to the recoll-1.20.6/ directory using dired, then press ` to open an *ansi-term* buffer for the current directory.

Here's the setup for that (part of my full config):

(defun ora-terminal ()
  "Switch to terminal. Launch if nonexistent."
  (if (get-buffer "*ansi-term*")
      (switch-to-buffer "*ansi-term*")
    (ansi-term "/bin/bash"))
    (get-buffer-process "*ansi-term*"))

(defun ora-dired-open-term ()
  "Open an `ansi-term' that corresponds to current directory."
  (let ((current-dir (dired-current-directory)))
     (if (file-remote-p current-dir)
         (let ((v (tramp-dissect-file-name current-dir t)))
           (format "ssh %s@%s\n"
                   (aref v 1) (aref v 2)))
       (format "cd '%s'\n" current-dir)))
    (setq default-directory current-dir)))

(define-key dired-mode-map (kbd "`") 'ora-dired-open-term)

Configure and make

Here's a typical sequence of shell commands.

./configure && make
sudo make install
cd query && make
which recoll
sudo cp recollq /usr/local/bin/

I was a total Linux newbie 5 years ago and had no idea about shell commands. Using only the first two lines, you can build and install a huge amount of software, so these are a great place to start if you want to learn these tools. I actually got by using only those two lines for a year a so.

After the first run or ./configure it turned out that I was missing one library, so I had to do this one and redo the ./configure step.

sudo apt-get install libqt5webkit5-dev

I think this one would work as well:

sudo apt-get build-dep recoll

Configuring Recoll

I only launched the graphical interface to select the indexing directory. It's the home directory by default, I didn't want that so I chose ~/Dropbox/org/ instead. Apparently, there's a way to make the indexing automatic via a cron job; you can even configure it via the graphical interface: it's all good.

Using Recoll from Emacs

Emacs has great options for processing output from a shell command. So first I had to figure out how the shell command should look like. This should be good enough to produce a list of indexed files that contain the word "Haskell":

recollq -b 'haskell'

And there's how to adapt that command to the asynchronous ivy-read interface:

(defun counsel-recoll-function (string &rest _unused)
  "Issue recallq for STRING."
  (if (< (length string) 3)
      (counsel-more-chars 3)
     (format "recollq -b '%s'" string))

(defun counsel-recoll (&optional initial-input)
  "Search for a string in the recoll database.
You'll be given a list of files that match.
Selecting a file will launch `swiper' for that file.
INITIAL-INPUT can be given as the initial minibuffer input."
  (ivy-read "recoll: " 'counsel-recoll-function
            :initial-input initial-input
            :dynamic-collection t
            :history 'counsel-git-grep-history
            :action (lambda (x)
                      (when (string-match "file://\\(.*\\)\\'" x)
                        (let ((file-name (match-string 1 x)))
                          (find-file file-name)
                          (unless (string-match "pdf$" x)
                            (swiper ivy-text)))))))

The code here is pretty simple:

  • I don't start a search until at least 3 chars are entered, in order to not get too many results.
  • I mention :dynamic-collection t which means that recollq should be called after each new letter entered.
  • In :action, I specify to open the selected file and start a swiper with the current input in that file.


I hope you found this info useful. It's certainly pretty cool:

cd ~/Dropbox/org && du -hs
# 567M .

So there's half of a gigabyte of stuff, all of it indexed, and I'm getting a file list update after each new key press in Emacs.

If you know of a better tool than recoll (I'm not too happy that match context that it gives via the -A command option), please do share. Also, I've just learned that there's helm-recoll out there, so you can use that if you like Helm.