GObject introspection (abbreviated ‘GIR’) is a system which extracts APIs from C code and produces binary type libraries which can be used by non-C language bindings, and other tools, to introspect or wrap the original C libraries. It uses a system of annotations in documentation comments in the C code to expose extra information about the APIs which is not machine readable from the code itself.

It should be enabled for all public APIs: so all libraries. It cannot be enabled for programs, since they expose no APIs. However, it is still recommended to add introspection annotations to documentation comments in program code, as they clarify the documentation.

Using Introspection

The first step for using introspection is to add it to the build system, following the instructions here, following method 1. This should be done early in the life of a project, as introspectability affects API design.

This should result in a .gir and .typelib file being generated for the project. The .gir file is human readable, and can be inspected manually to see if the API has been introspected correctly (although the GIR compilation process will print error messages and warnings for any missing annotations or other problems). APIs with introspectable="0" will not be exposed to language bindings as they are missing annotations or are otherwise not representable in the GIR file.

The next step is to add annotations to the documentation comments for every piece of public API. If a particular piece of API should not be exposed in the GIR file, use the (skip) annotation. Documentation on the available annotations is here.

If annotating the code for a program, a good approach is to split the bulk of the code out into an internal, private convenience library. An internal API reference manual can be built from its documentation comments (see Documentation). The library is then not installed, but is linked in to the program which is itself installed. This approach for generating internal API documentation is especially useful for large projects where the internal code may be large and hard to navigate.

Annotations do not have to be added exhaustively: GIR has a set of default annotations which it applies based on various conventions (see API Design). For example, a const gchar* parameter does not need an explicit (transfer none) annotation, because the const modifier implies this already. Learning the defaults for annotations is a matter of practice.

API Design

In order to be introspectable without too many annotations, APIs must follow certain conventions, such as the standard GObject naming conventions, and the conventions for bindable APIs. This is necessary because of the flexibility of C: code can be written to behave in any way imaginable, but higher level languages don’t allow this kind of freedom. So in order for a C API to be representable in a higher level language, it has to conform to the behaviors supported by that language.

For example, GIR expects that if a function can fail, it will have a GError** parameter, which will always be its final parameter. The GIR scanner detects this and automatically converts that parameter to an exception attribute on the method in the GIR file. It cannot do this if the GError* is returned directly, or is not the final function parameter, for example.

Therefore, APIs must be designed to be introspectable, and the GIR file should be checked as the APIs are being written. If the GIR doesn’t match what you expect for a new API, the API may need extra annotations, or even for its C declaration to be changed (as in the case of va_list).

g-ir-scanner emits warnings when it encounters code it does not understand. By passing --warn-error as well as --warn-all in INTROSPECTION_SCANNER_ARGS in, compilation will fail when unintrospectable APIs are encountered. This will ensure all new APIs are introspectable, and is highly recommended.