I’ve been using emacs for a long time, and a long time it took me to consider learning Emacs Lisp. Before that, I didn’t trust my level of understanding enough to be comfortable in managing my setup efficiently.

One of the main problems of setting up Emacs is that not only you tend to accumulate so many tricks from EmacsWiki and blog posts that your .emacs has to grow to a full ~/.emacs.d/ directory (starting at ~/.emacs.d/init.el), but also you finally depend on several librairies of code you’re not authoring nor maintaining. Let’s call them packages.

Some of them will typically be available on ELPA, which allows you to breathe and keep cool. But most of them, let’s face it, are not there. Most of the packages I use I tend to get them either from debian (see apt-rdepends for having the complete list of packages that depends on emacs, unfortunately I’m not finding an online version of the tool to link too), or from ELPA, or from their own git repository somewhere. Some of them even I get directly from an obscure website not maintained anymore, but always there when you need them.

Of course, my emacs setup is managed in a private git repository. Some people on #emacs are using git submodules (or was it straight import) for managing external repositories in there, but all I can say is that I frown on this idea. I want an easy canonical list of packages I depend on to run emacs, and I want this documentation to be usable as-is. Enters el-get!

As we’re all damn lazy, here’s a visual introduction to el-get:

(setq el-get-sources
      '((:name bbdb
	       :type git
	       :url "git://github.com/barak/BBDB.git"
	       :load-path ("./lisp" "./bits")
	       :info "texinfo"
	       :build ("./configure" "make"))
	(:name magit
	       :type git
	       :url "http://github.com/philjackson/magit.git"
	       :info "."
	       :build ("./autogen.sh" "./configure" "make"))
	(:name vkill
	       :type http
	       :url "http://www.splode.com/~friedman/software/emacs-lisp/src/vkill.el"
	       :features vkill)
	(:name yasnippet
	       :type git-svn
	       :url "http://yasnippet.googlecode.com/svn/trunk/")
	(:name asciidoc         :type elpa)
	(:name dictionary-el    :type apt-get)
	(:name emacs-goodies-el :type apt-get)))


So now you have a pretty good documentation of the packages you want installed, where to get them, and how to install them. For the advanced methods (such as elpa or apt-get), you basically just need the package name. When relying on a bare git repository, you need to give some more information, such as the URL to clone and the build steps if any. Then also what features to require and maybe where to find the texinfo documentation of the package, for automatic inclusion into your local Info menu.

The good news is that not only you now have a solid readable description of all that in a central place, but this very description is all (el-get) needs to do its magic. This command will check that each and every package is installed on your system (in el-get-dir) and if that’s not the case, it will actually install it. Then, it will init the packages: that means caring about the load-path, the Info-directory-list (and dir texinfo menu building), the loading of the emacs-lisp files, and finally it will require the features.

Here’s a prettyfied ielm session that will serve as a demo:

ELISP> (el-get)
("aspell-en" "aspell-fr" "muse" "dictionary" "htmlize" "bbdb" "google-maps"
"magit" "emms" "nxhtml" "vkill" "xcscope" "yasnippet" "asciidoc"
"auto-dictionary" "css-mode" "gist" "lua-mode" "lisppaste") 

All the packages being already installed, it’s running fast enough that I won’t bother measuring the run time, that seems to be somewhere around one second.