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TIL: Explicit TypeScript lib References

October 08, 2020 • 4 minute read

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The problem

When a package uses a modern JavaScript feature, its types can behave strangely if the consuming application’s TypeScript configuration isn’t up-to-date with the feature.

For example, if the package uses an ES2018 feature — like async iterables — but the application’s TypeScript configuration is ES2015, the behaviour can be surprising and difficult to understand.

This has happened with RxJS. In version 7, an async iterable can be used as an observable input — it can be passed to an observable creator, like from — so the ObservableInput type looks like this:

export type ObservableInput<T> =
  | SubscribableOrPromise<T>
  | ArrayLike<T>
  | Iterable<T>
  | AsyncIterableIterator<T>;

If the TypeScript configuration for the application that consumes RxJS does not have lib configured as ES2018 or later, the AsyncIterableIterator type won’t be referenced and the type inference will behave in an unexpected manner.

Let’s take a look at this snippet:

const answers = from([42, 54]);

The observable input is an array of numbers, so the inferred type of answers should be Observable<number>, but it’s not. If lib is configured as ES2017 or earlier, the inferred type is Observable<unknown>.

And it’s not at all clear that the unexpected inference is related to the TypeScript configuration — in particular, to the lib that’s specified. 😬

How does the configuration work?

There are two ways the TypeScript lib compiler option can be configured.

  1. No lib option is specified. In which case, TypeScript uses a the target and adds references to the DOM and ScriptHost libraries.

    For example, if the target is ES5, the lib option will be ["ES5", "DOM", "ScriptHost"].

  2. The lib option can be specified explicitly. In which case, the target option has no bearing on which libraries are referenced.

It’s common for the lib option to be specified because:

  • some developers (like me, before I wrote this post 😅) don’t read all of the TypeScript documentation and don’t understand how the target and lib options interact; and
  • Node developers don’t want the DOM types to be referenced.

That means it’s quite likely that there will be some applications that won’t have TypeScript configured for modern features used within packages upon which they depend.

A solution

The problem can be avoided if the package is able to have some say in the TypeScript libraries that are referenced. Ryan Cavanaugh pointed out that this can be done by adding a TypeScript triple-slash directive to specify a lib reference, like this:

/// <reference lib="ESNext.AsyncIterable" />

The directive can be added to a .ts source file. When TypeScript compiles the source file, it will include the directive in the generated .d.ts file. Then, when the consuming application imports the .d.ts file, the directive will be processed and the specified library will be referenced.

The solution works. It resolves the problem mentioned above — with the directive, the type is correctly inferred to be Observable<number> — but it’s not perfect. Ryan mentions that referencing ESNext.AsyncIterable also references a handful of other types — some of which might not have been otherwise referenced by the application developer’s TypeScript configuration.

The solution is, however, much better than the alternative: countless developer hours wasted and an interminable number of issues opened. I mean, we will, of course, mention RxJS’s lib requirement — a minimum of ES2018 — in the documentation, but who’s going to read that? Probably not me. 🙂


Personal blog by Nicholas Jamieson.
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