It is commonplace for a developer to find himself working at any given time on multiple different, distinct changes to a particular bit of source code. This isn't necessarily due to poor planning or some form of digital masochism. A software engineer often spots bugs in his peripheral vision while working on some nearby chunk of source code. Or perhaps he's halfway through some large change when he realizes the solution he's working on is best committed as several smaller logical units. Often, these logical units aren't nicely contained in some module, safely separated from other changes. The units might overlap, modifying different files in the same module, or even modifying different lines in the same file.

There are various work methodologies that developers can employ to keep these logical changes organized. Some use separate working copies of the same repository to hold each individual change in progress. Others might choose to create short-lived feature branches in the repository and use a single working copy that is constantly switched to point to one such branch or another. Still others use diff and patch tools to back up and restore uncommitted changes to and from patchfiles associated with each change. Each of these methods has its pros and cons, and to a large degree, the details of the changes being made heavily influence the methodology used to distinguish them.

Subversion 1.5 brings a new changelists feature that adds yet another method to the mix. Changelists are basically arbitrary labels applied to working copy files for the express purpose of associating multiple files together. Users of many of Google's software offerings are familiar with this concept already. For example, Gmail ( doesn't provide the traditional folders-based email organization mechanism. In Gmail, you apply arbitrary labels to emails, and multiple emails can be said to be part of the same group if they happen to share a particular label. Viewing only a group of similarly labeled emails then becomes a simple user interface trick. Many other Web 2.0 sites have similar mechanisms—consider the “tags” used by sites such as YouTube ( and Flickr (, “categories” applied to blog posts, and so on. Folks understand today that organization of data is critical, but that how that data is organized needs to be a flexible concept. The old files-and-folders paradigm is too rigid for some applications.

Subversion's changelist support allows you to create changelists by applying labels to files you want to be associated with that changelist, remove those labels, and limit the scope of the files on which its subcommands operate to only those bearing a particular label. In this section, we'll look in detail at how to do these things.