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Why Importing Directories in JS Works

JS, Imports, and Index.js

Have you every seen a React import like this and just trusted that it works?

import Button from "./components/button"

This is importing a directory, not a button. But lo and behold, when you spin up your app alarm bells don’t go off and your beautiful button shows up.

But how?

Starting with File Structure

There are a few file structures that land us in this situation - the index.js file with a component defined within it, and the index.js file that acts as a public interface. Both are a matter of choice that feature importing a directory to use a component.

File Structure - Example 1

Index.js Components

In this setup, component code is written directly in the index.js of each directory, with any supporting code residing in that same directory. Context is provided by the directory name, not the component file name.

Example Directory Structure

├── src
| ├── index.js <!-- Application root -->
| ├── components/
| ├──── button/
| ├────── index.js
| ├────── button.css
| ├──── form/
| ├────── index.js
| ├────── form.css

Example /button/index.js

const button = ({onClick, text}) => (
	<button onClick={onClick}>
    {text}
	</button>
);

export default button;

Example Import

import Button from './components/button'

File Structure - Example 2

Index.js As an Interface

In this setup, component code is written in explicitly named files (button code is written in button.js form code is written in form.js etc) and the index.js file is used as an interface that exports the public API. I’ve made a small codesandbox link here to see this in action.

Example Directory Structure

├── src
| ├── index.js <!-- Application root -->
| ├── components/
| ├──── button/
| ├────── index.js
| ├────── button.js
| ├────── button.css
| ├──── form/
| ├────── index.js
| ├────── form.js
| ├────── form.css

Same Example Button

const button = ({onClick, text}) => (
	<button onClick={onClick}>
    {text}
	</button>
);

export default button;

Example index.js File

export { default as Button } from "./button.js";

Example import

import { Button } from './components/button';

On a side note, this public interface style lends itself well to an index.js file at the root of your components that handles exporting all of the components you consider to be “public”. For example:

├── src
| ├── index.js <!-- Application root -->
| ├── components/
| ├──── index.js <!-- Components root -->
| ├──── button/
| ├────── index.js
| ├────── button.js
| ├────── button.css
| ├──── form/
| ├────── index.js
| ├────── form.js
| ├────── form.css
| ├──── someInternalComponent/
| ├────── index.js
| ├────── someInternalComponent.js
| ├────── someInternalComponent.css

This results in an index file that looks like:

export { default as Button } from "./Button";
export { default as Form } from "./Form";

This style of interface relies on directory imports at two levels and makes using components a breeze throughout the app.


This was a bit of an aside. What we came here for is a better understanding of how/why we can import a directory:

import { Button } from './components/button';

and it works.

For that, we need to dive into some details

How Imports Resolve

Let’s get something out of the way. Import syntax and require syntax are functionally equivalent. If you disagree, check out this repl

So when we import { Button } from './components/button'; we are actually writing something like var Button = require('./components/button')

Knowing this allows us to focus our energy on require syntax to solve our question. For that, we go to the docs. Particularly this section:

LOAD_AS_DIRECTORY(X)
1. If X/package.json is a file,
   a. Parse X/package.json, and look for "main" field.
   b. If "main" is a falsy value, GOTO 2.
   c. let M = X + (json main field)
   d. LOAD_AS_FILE(M)
   e. LOAD_INDEX(M)
   f. LOAD_INDEX(X) DEPRECATED
   g. THROW "not found"
2. LOAD_INDEX(X)

LOAD_INDEX(X)
1. If X/index.js is a file, load X/index.js as JavaScript text. STOP
2. If X/index.json is a file, parse X/index.json to a JavaScript object. STOP
3. If X/index.node is a file, load X/index.node as binary addon. STOP

This is some pseudo code from the friendly folks over at node.js. Let’s break it down:

When calling require with a directory, for example import { Button } from './components/button';, node will check if './components/button/package.json' exists. If there is no package.json at this file location, node will move to the LOAD_INDEX(X) directive.

In this section, node will check if './components/button/index.js' exists. If it does, it will load this file as a Javascript text. In the cases we have defined above, node would find an index.js file with either a component defined within or a pass-through export. Either way, the index.js is read and executed and your beautifully crafted button shows up as expected.

A Quick Roundup

Importing a directory works if there is an index.js file located within that directory with an export defined.

Knowing how this magic works gives you the power to leverage it willingly. For example, structuring your project to only use directory imports (import Button from './components/button instead of import Button from './components/button/button.js) means the underlying component names and file structure can change as much as necessary without blowing up all your import statements.