The Basics of Package.json in Node.js and npm - NodeSource

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The Basics of Package.json in Node.js and npm

The package.json file is core to the Node.js ecosystem and is a basic part of understanding and working with Node.js, npm, and even modern JavaScript. The package.json is used as what equates to a manifest about applications, modules, packages, and more - it's a tool to that's used to make modern development streamlined, modular, and efficient.

As a developer in the Node.js ecosystem, understanding the basics of package.json is one of the first steps to really kicking off your development experience with Node.js.

Because of how essential understanding the basics of package.json is to development with Node.js, I've gone through and outlined some of the most common and important properties of a package.json file that you'll need to use package.json effectively.

Identifying Metadata Inside package.json

The name property

The name property in a package.json file is one of the fundamental components of the package.json structure. At its core, name is a string that is exactly what you would expect - the name of the module that the package.json is describing.

Inside your package.json, the name property as a string would look something like this:

    "name": "metaverse"

Despite having only a few material restrictions (a max length of 214 characters, can't begin with . or <i>, no uppercase letters, and no characters that aren't URL-friendly), one interesting aspect of the name property is that, there have been software ecosystems that have developed standard naming conventions that enable discoverability simply by using the name property.

A few examples of this kind of namespacing are babel-plugin- for Babel and the the webpack -loader tooling.

The version property

The version property is a key part of a package.json, as it denotes the current version of the module that the package.json file is describing.

While the version property isn't _required to follow semver, semver is the standard used by the vast majority of modules and projects in the Node.js ecosystem - and the module version, according to semver, is what you'll typically find in the version property of a package.json file.

Inside your package.json, the version property as a string using semver could look like this:

    "version": "5.12.4"

The license property

The license property of a package.json file is used to note what license the module that the package.json file is describing. While there are some complex ways you can use the license property of a package.json file (to do things like dual-licensing or defining your own license), the most typical usage of it is to use a SPDX License identifier - some examples that you may recognize are MIT, ISC, and GPL-3.0.

Inside your package.json, the license property with an MIT license look like this:

    "license": "MIT"
Looking for more info on npm? Check out our complete guide: Read now: The Ultimate Guide to npm

The description property

The description property of a package.json file is a string that contains a human-readable description about the module - basically, it's the module developer's chance to quickly let users know what exactly a module does. The description property is frequently indexed by search tools like npm search and the npm CLI search tool to help find relevant packages based on a search query.

Inside your package.json, the description property would look like this:

    "description": "The Metaverse virtual reality. The final outcome of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet."

The keywords property

The keywords property inside a package.json file is, as you may have guessed, a collection of keywords about a module. Keywords can help identify a package, related modules and software, and concepts.

The keywords property is always going to be an array, with one or more strings as the array's values - each one of these strings will, in turn, be one of the project's keywords.

Inside your package.json, the keywords array would look something like this:

    "keywords": [
        "virtual reality",
        "augmented reality",
        "snow crash"

Functional Metadata Inside package.json

The main property

The main property of a package.json is a direction to the entry point to the module that the package.json is describing. In a Node.js application, when the module is called via a require statement, the module's exports from the file named in the main property will be what's returned to the Node.js application.

Inside your package.json, the main property, with an entry point of app.js, would look like this:

    "main": "app.js",

The repository property

The repository property of a package.json is an array that defines where the source code for the module lives. Typically, for open source projects, this would be a public GitHub repo, with the repository array noting that the type of version control is git, and the URL of the repo itself. One thing to note about this is that it's not just a URL the repo can be accessed from, but the full URL that the version control can be accessed from.

Inside your package.json, the repository property would look like this:

  "repository": {
      "type": "git",
      "url": ""

The scripts property

The scripts property of a package.json file is simple conceptually, but is complex functionally to the point that it's used as a build tool by many.

At its simplest, the scripts property takes an object with as many key/value pairs as desired. Each one of the keys in these key/value pairs is the name of a command that can be run. The corresponding value of each key is the actual command that is run. Scripts are frequently used for testing, building, and streamlining of the needed commands to work with a module.

Inside your package.json, the scripts property with a build command to execute node app.js (presumably to build your application) and a test command using Standard would look like this:

    "scripts": {
        "build": "node app.js",
        "test": "standard"

The dependencies property

The dependencies property of a module's package.json is where dependencies - the other modules that this module uses - are defined. The dependencies property takes an object that has the name and version at which each dependency should be used. Tying things back to the version property defined earlier, the version that a module needs is defined. Do note that you'll frequently find carets (^) and tildes (~) included with package versions. These are the notation for version range - taking a deep-dive into these is outside the scope of this article, but you can learn more in our primer on semver.

Inside your package.json, the dependencies property of your module may look something like this:

  "dependencies": {
    "async": "^0.2.10",
    "npm2es": "~0.4.2",
    "optimist": "~0.6.0",
    "request": "~2.30.0",
    "skateboard": "^1.5.1",
    "split": "^0.3.0",
    "weld": "^0.2.2"

The devDependencies property

The devDependencies property of a package.json is almost identical to the dependencies property in terms of structure, with a key difference. The dependencies property is used to define the dependencies that a module needs to run in production. The devDependencies property is usually used to define the dependencies the module needs to run in development.

Inside your package.json, the devDependencies property would look something like this:

    "devDependencies": {
        "escape-html": "^1.0.3",
        "lucene-query-parser": "^1.0.1"

Want to keep going?

If you want to keep learning about Node.js, npm, package.json, and development with the Node.js stack, I've got some awesome articles for you.

We also have a guide on some great utilities for Node.js developers - if you want to kick your developer experience to 11, be sure to check it out to find some tools to help you get there.

The goal with this guide was to help kickstart you with package.json for development with Node.js and npm. If you want to take the leap and ensure that you're always on solid footing with Node.js and npm modules, you should check out NodeSource Certified Modules - an awesome tool to help ensure that you spend more time building applications and less time worrying about modules.

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