Haskell pdf-toolbox: new release, future API changes and design mistakes

March 6, 2015
Yuras Shumovich

As you probably don’t know, I’m working on a PDF processing library in Haskell, pdf-toolbox. It can parse PDF files, generate them, it supports encrypted files, it can do incremental updates, extract text, blah-blah-blah. If you are interested, let me outline the current state and my future plans.

New release

I just released new versions for all packages that belong to the library: core , document , content and viewer.

The main change: pdf-toolbox-document now supports encryption handler version 4, so it can handle files encrypted with AES algorithm. Also few bugs were fixed in core and content. As you can see, nothing terribly exciting, and the blog post is not about the release actually.

Current state of the HEAD

At the end of 2014 I started API rewrite. I mostly finished with the initial goals, though more work is necessary to fix viewer and examples to compile again. But when doing the rewrite I fount that the API is still far from ideal. Well, it is bad. That is why I decided to port the latest changes to stable branch and release it, and then continue working on API redesign.

Broken API

I’m still not 100% sure what to do, and I’d like to know your opinion. Here the current plan.

PDF types

The design of PDF types is terrible. Newtype over bool?!! Yes, it was me who wrote that, but I did it more then 3 years ago, and I have no idea why I did that:

data Object a =
  ONumber Number |
  OBoolean Boolean |
  OName Name |
  ODict Dict |
  OArray Array |
  OStr Str |
  OStream (Stream a) |
  ORef Ref |
  deriving (Eq, Show)

newtype Boolean = Boolean Bool
  deriving (Eq, Show)

newtype Dict = Dict [(Name, Object ())]
  deriving (Eq, Show)

-- and so on...

I’m going to remove most (all?) of the newtypes and introduce HashMap and Vector instead of lists.

Also, right now Stream type has a payload. It could be an actual stream content, or just an offset of the content, or anything else. Sometimes it is convenient, but now I think that it was bad idea. I’m going to remove the payload completely and pass it separately when necessary.

Probably something like that:

data Object =
  Number Scientific |
  Bool Bool |
  Name Text |
  Dict (HashMap Text Object) |
  Array (Vector Object) |
  String Text |
  Stream (HashMap Text Object) |
  Ref (Int, Int) |
  deriving (Eq, Show)

Also a better way to convert PDF values to domain types is necessary. Probably something like a Parser, that is used in FromJSON type class in aeson?

Error handling

The stable version uses EitherT to handle errors. I believe that it was wrong design decision. I switched to extensible exceptions in HEAD already. It still requires cleanup, e.g. I want to introduce more specific exceptions, but it is already much better in my opinion.

Custom monad transformer

I have Pdf monad transformer in stable version. I even have a type class for PDF operations. That is probably the worst thing one may do for PDF library. Just imaging that you want to operate on two PDF files at the same time. With custom monad it becomes a pain, and the easiest solution is probably to fork a separate thread for each PDF file.

In HEAD I already switched to IO, now all objects are passed explicitly as values. I like it :)

Side note: I like that a lot of libraries on Hackage switched to extensible exceptions and replaced custom monads with IO in API. E.g. websockets and mongoDB packages.

Reading encrypted documents

The current design is an example of unsafe API. You should check that the document is encrypted and then set user password , see here. The problem occurs when you forgot to do that – you get strange errors somewhere else, e.g. when extracting text.

I can add a special check to each operation and throw DocumentEncrypted exception when user forgot to set a password. But that will slowdown everything. And I can’t require password before opening the document because user should be able to examine parts of the document (encryption dictionary) to decide what password to use. I’m still looking for better solution.

Abstractions and tests

PDF is very big and complex. It is hard to come with solid abstractions because you can’t keep everything in your mind. A month ago I was sure I have excellent separation between PDF as a file format; as a collection of values; and as a document with title, pages etc. But one day my naive mental picture was ruined because of interconnections I was not aware about.

What can I do with that? Rearrange abstractions? Drop them? I don’t want to decide upfront, I’m going to be more agile instead. And refactoring will become the most important tool, but I need more tests for that. So test coverage becomes an important goal for me.


I wrote the first version of PDF parser more then 3 years ago. It was a dirty prototype, but it did the work – it was a tool to examine PDF file internal structure. Now it is a library with a lot of features and long history. It is not a prototype anymore, but it is dirty still :)

I don’t know how many users the library has. I get bug reports and feature requests periodically, but the only direct user is hoodle-publish package. As I described above, I’m going to completely change the API, and I’d like to know your opinion if you are using, going to use or even not going to use it.

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