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Choosing a JavaScript library

Published: January 22, 2007. Filed under: Frameworks, JavaScript, Programming.

Previously we looked at some objections to JavaScript libraries and some possible responses. Now it’s time to ask a bigger question: do you need a JavaScript library, and if so how should you go about choosing one? I’m not going to recommend any particular library, because I don’t think there’s such a thing as one-size-fits-all in web development, but I can list a few things which are useful to keep in mind when making these decisions. So let’s dive in.

Do you need a library?

No matter what language you’re writing, libraries all serve the same purpose: to provide common, reusable functionality and save you from writing lots of repetitive code. And no matter what language you’re writing, if you find yourself writing the same thing over and over, odds are you could use a library to help you out, whether it’s one that somebody’s already written or one that you write yourself and reuse.

When you’re writing JavaSript, it’s very easy to end up in just that situation; there are a number of common things you’ll need to do repeatedly, like attach listeners to events or fire off an XMLHttpRequest, which will be pure misery if you have to write all the code for them each time you use them. For example, consider what’s needed to attach an event listener:

Writing that sort of thing just once is tedious. Writing it over and over again is a nightmare. So the natural solution should be some sort of reusable implementation which normalizes all the browser quirks and gives you a single interface to work with. And that’s precisely what libraries are for.

Of course, it’s possible to do a lot of things in JavaScript without XMLHttpRequest or event listeners or a number of other things that most of the good libraries provide, and if you’re in that situation then you probably have no need for one. But most modern applications of JavaScript are heavily driven by events, AJAX, animations and the like, so sooner or later most people will need some sort of JavaScript library.

Do you need someone else’s library?

This is a trickier question; if you know enough about JavaScript, the DOM, XMLHttpRequest and all the browser quirks, then you can probably write a nice little quite of common functionality for yourself. So why rely on someone else’s possibly-buggy code? I can think of a couple reasons:

So unless you have unique needs which rule out using any of the available JavaScript libraries, it’s probably best to use one of them instead of rolling your own.

What makes a good library?

It’s really tough to answer this in an objective fashion, because it’s not entirely an objective question; once you get beyond the basics, every programmer has slightly different needs and slightly different preferences, so there isn’t a “One True Library” out there which will be right for everyone.

As far as objectivity goes, there are a few things every good library has to have in order to be usable:

Any library which doesn’t provide all four of these doesn’t really register on my radar; without this functionality I don’t think you can do modern JavaScript programming.

Subjectively, there are several other things I look for; missing one of them isn’t a deal-breaker by itself, but I’ll always gravitate toward libraries which meet most or all of these criteria:

Again, these things are highly subjective; most of them are rooted in what I personally think constitutes good coding practice, and there’s room for lots of opinions on that topic. If you find yourself disagreeing with me on one or more of these points, just ignore them and move on; you’re probably not going to change my mind about them and I’m probably not going to change yours.

Oh, yeah, forgot about this…

There’s one other thing which can really make or break a JavaScript library, and it’s surprising how often it’s overlooked, because the same thing makes or breaks an awful lot of software in other fields: documentation. The greatest library in the world would fail if the only way to learn it was reading the code (and, in fact, it already has to a large extent). Some packages have managed to overcome this by way of lots of unofficial documentation — blog entries and the like — but there is absolutely no substitute for full, well-written documentation. The ideal, for me, consists of:

  1. High-level overviews of each part of the library, touching on key objects and methods.
  2. Practical examples showing how to handle common use cases.
  3. Full API documentation for everything in the library. JSDoc is both good and bad for this: good because it makes API docs stupidly easy to generate, and bad because people assume that API docs are all you need. Javadoc, which inspired JSDoc, has wrought much ill on the Java world for largely the same reasons.
  4. Comments throughout the code itself.

Pretty much everybody who’s developing a JavaScript library has dropped the ball on this; very few libraries manage even one or two of those points, and out of the teeming multitude of JavaScript libraries floating around today I’ve seen exactly one which manages to hit all four points with any kind of success. Maybe there are other splendidly-documented libraries out there, but I’ve yet to see them; most treat documentation like an afterthought. If you know of a library which does get the documentation right (and which isn’t produced by a company whose name rhymes with “wahoo”), let me know about it. If you’re a JavaScript library developer and you want some free publicity, bring your documentation up to snuff and point me at it. I’d really love to have to rescind this complaint at some point.

Go forth and choose

And that’s about all I’ve got on evaluating and choosing JavaScript libraries. I do have a favorite out of the current crop, and it shouldn’t be too hard for regular readers to figure out what it is, but I won’t push it on anybody; pick the tool that’s best at helping you do your job, use it and don’t fret about what someone else thinks.

Coming up sometime in the next week: some thoughts on how to close the JavaScript knowledge gap. Stay tuned.