Import Local JS Modules Without ../'ing

Writing ../../ can be a pain when importing modules from relative directories. Webpack can help.

Vanilla JS Module Imports

JavaScript module systems usually use the filesystem as the API for importing files. There has long been a distinction between import paths for npm modules vs. local files:

  • npm modules - import React from 'react'

  • local modules - import App from './app'

Local modules have to start with a . and then some series of / or ../ to navigate to relative directories to find files containing the JS modules. This is expected. This is how it should be. Tradition!

The Pain of Long Relative Paths

Of course, in the world of build-stepping all the JavaScripts, we have created new options for ourselves. So, let's say that we have a spec file that lives next to our source file, as I'm wont to do. But that spec file has a dependency on a test helper that lives in a root test folder. Something like this:

├── src
│   └── some
│       └── deep
│           └── module.spec.js
└── test
    └── helper.js

From my module.spec.js file, then, I'm going to have to do an egregiously long (could be longer) import to get to helper.js:

import helper from '../../../test/helper'

Oh, the pain. Right? I have to count the directories out to make it to the project root. It also feels a little weird in this case ../ing out to pass the src -> test boundary. And what about when I refactor and move my module.spec.js? Well, let's try something else.

The Terrible Power of Webpack

Webpack is here to help. What can't you do with Webpack! With Webpack, you are the expert. You can do anything.

By default, Webpack, like the module systems we've talked about above, looks in node_modules for those import paths that don't start with . and are thus interpreted to be npm modules. We can add to the list of where Webpack looks for such modules. This is accomplished via the resolve.modules attribute in webpack.config.js. Want it to look for files in this same way in your own project root? Assuming webpack.config.js is in your project root, just try:

const path = require('path')
  // ...,
  resolve: {
    modules: [

Don't forget to keep node_modules in the list in order to keep being able to find npm modules like react.

To import your helper from inside module.spec.js, now you'd write:

import helper from 'test/helper'

Pretty snazzy, right?

Beware this feature. It is useful and convenient, to be sure. But it changes a foundational expectation that a JS/Node developer would have when approaching a codebase. I've seen some projects do some pretty gnarly things, programmatically generating a list of resolve.modules paths to the point that tracing imported dependencies to their actual source became as bad as Ruby.

Have you used this feature before? Or what else have you found resolve.modules in Webpack good for?