Advice for new contributors

New to Xapian (or even open source)? Don’t worry! Here we try to guide you through your first contribution, but if anything is unclear or you want to ask a question, please get in touch. This may look a bit daunting the first time, but we’re here to help, and a lot of the details will become natural over time.

Checking out and building Xapian

A good way to start learning about Xapian is to check out the code, and get it to build. It’s better to use the latest code from the repository rather than a release, as that’s what we want the projects to be based on.

We recommend you use Linux or another UNIX-like system for development work, as we’re better set up for development on such platforms. In particular we use them ourselves, so can more easily help with any set up issues you may encounter. If you want to run Linux (perhaps virtualised) for development and have no existing preference, we suggest ​Debian or ​Ubuntu as our documentation covers these well.

It can take a while to get the code if your network connection is slow, and it may take a while to build and run the testsuite if your computer is slow - while you are waiting, you might want to make a start on the next section.

If you haven’t used git before, or want a refresher on “branches”, “remotes” and so forth, then this article by James Aylett was written for our students a number of years ago, and may be helpful. There are also a number of free books and resources online, such as Pro Git.

Learn about Xapian’s API

It’s a good idea to get familiar with Xapian by going through the user guide. The online version has examples in Python, but you can also grab the source and build for other languages; most example code is also available in C++ and PHP.

For more details on individual classes, you may want to look at the automatically generated API documentation. If you’re building from git, this will be built for you in xapian-core/docs; the API may have some changes between the stable release documented on the website and the latest version in git.

Get familiar with the code

If you’re going to be writing code, it’s a good idea to read some of Xapian’s existing sources, particularly in the main library (xapian-core). When you come to write your own, you’ll want to follow the style of how the current code works, both in terms of layout (where spaces go and so on) and how we use various C++ language features.

Picking something to start with

It can be difficult sometimes to find a place to start, so here are some suggestions:

  • Start small.

    By picking a small contribution first, other people can help you with details of how Xapian’s documentation, code and so on work. It’s much easier to get feedback on a small change to start off with.

    If documentation is your thing, then you might like to take a look at our list of missing documentation.

    On the features side, our bite-sized projects are intended to be suitable for someone new to Xapian to pick up. We’ve tried to have a range of things to work on across different parts of Xapian.


    No change is too small to consider! Some people’s first contributions to an open source project are fixing a single stray letter in documentation, or adding a line break where one is needed.

  • Pick something you care about, or which you already have some knowledge of.

    For instance, if you’ve been using Omega, you might want to pick up a small bug or feature for that. Or if you’ve studied (or are studying now!) different Information Retrieval weighting schemes, you might want to implement one of the ones we don’t currently support.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

    Please pop onto the mailing list or IRC if you need any help in getting started or picking something to work on.

Do some work

Add or correct some documentation, fix a bug or implement a new feature! You’ll probably find our suggested workflow helpful. We also have detailed information on contributing your changes back to Xapian for inclusion in future releases.