Emacs Org-mode: Use good header ids!

Table of Contents

Author Lee Hinman (lee@writequit.org)
Date 2016-09-07 09:43:28

Introduction

I frequently write many articles in org-mode, some private, some public. Most of the public ones eventually end up published on my site as HTML documents, to be shared with co-workers or anyone who happens to be browsing my site. Recently, however, I've noticed that many org documents that are exported to HTML are using a concerning method of anchoring links to different headlines.

The Problem - anchors are not consistent

Let's take an example.org document, the simplest example of a an org-mode buffer with just a few headlines:

* Headline 1
This is some text

* Headline 2
This is heading number two

** Sub heading 1

** Sub heading 2

* Headline 3
In conclusion, this is an example

Now, if you invoke C-c C-e to bring up the export options and export this document to HTML, you'll end up with a document that looks something like this:

org-export1.png

Currently this is at the file:///home/hinmanm/example.html url. In the table of contents, if you click on the Headline 2 heading, you are then taken to the file:///home/hinmanm/example.html#sec-2 and jump to that location on the page (imagine the page is longer so you would jump to the location).

The issue with this is when we edit our example.org file to add a headline somewhere in the middle, in this case, adding a "Newly added headline" in between "Headline 1" and "Headline 2".

* Headline 1
This is some text

* Newly added headline
Wait, I've decided that this information is really important!

* Headline 2
This is heading number two

** Sub heading 1

** Sub heading 2

* Headline 3
In conclusion, this is an example

If this is again exported to HTML, we get:

org-export2.png

But wait! Notice that the previously visited HTML anchor #sec-2 now points to the "Newly added headline" headline, instead of "Headline 2" like it used to! This is a problem for any public HTML document where someone may keep a link to a sub heading, or send the heading to another person. As the number of headlines increases, the chance of inserting a headline and messing up the anchors increases. So, how can you handle this?

The Solution - use custom ids in headline properties

Org-mode has property drawers for properties that apply to headlines, and we can assign a custom ID to a headline by setting the CUSTOM_ID property, so if we do that to the "Headline 2" heading, you can see:

* Headline 1
This is some text

* Newly added headline
Wait, I've decided that this information is really important!

* Headline 2
:PROPERTIES:
:CUSTOM_ID: my-headline-2
:END:
This is heading number two

** Sub heading 1

** Sub heading 2

* Headline 3
In conclusion, this is an example

When this org document is exported to HTML, instead of using #sec-2 as the anchor, the value of the CUSTOM_ID will be used instead. This means the full link will be file:///home/hinmanm/example.html#my-headline-2, no matter how many headings you insert before or after the heading. You can also give the anchor a much more human-friendly name instead of a section number.

Automating adding the CUSTOM_ID

Fantastic! You may say, the only issue is that now I have to go through and manually add these custom ids! Well, fear not, because there is some elisp that can do this easily for you:

First, you'll need to require the org-id library, which has some helpers for this. You may also want to use your CUSTOM_ID for links also:

(require 'org-id)
(setq org-id-link-to-org-use-id 'create-if-interactive-and-no-custom-id)

Then we can define our own version of org-custom-id-get that calls org-id-new and creates a new property if one doesn't already exist In case you were wondering what the "h" is for, the ids that org-id-new generates by default are actually invalid XHTML anchors (because they start with a number instead of a character), so this changes them to start with "h". .

(defun eos/org-custom-id-get (&optional pom create prefix)
  "Get the CUSTOM_ID property of the entry at point-or-marker POM.
   If POM is nil, refer to the entry at point. If the entry does
   not have an CUSTOM_ID, the function returns nil. However, when
   CREATE is non nil, create a CUSTOM_ID if none is present
   already. PREFIX will be passed through to `org-id-new'. In any
   case, the CUSTOM_ID of the entry is returned."
  (interactive)
  (org-with-point-at pom
    (let ((id (org-entry-get nil "CUSTOM_ID")))
      (cond
       ((and id (stringp id) (string-match "\\S-" id))
        id)
       (create
        (setq id (org-id-new (concat prefix "h")))
        (org-entry-put pom "CUSTOM_ID" id)
        (org-id-add-location id (buffer-file-name (buffer-base-buffer)))
        id)))))

And add a helper function that's interactive to add custom ids to all headlines in the buffer if they don't already have one.

(defun eos/org-add-ids-to-headlines-in-file ()
  "Add CUSTOM_ID properties to all headlines in the
   current file which do not already have one."
  (interactive)
  (org-map-entries (lambda () (eos/org-custom-id-get (point) 'create))))

Now to add headlines, you can hit M-x eos/org-add-ids-to-headlines-in-file and you'll get something like this!

* Headline 1
:PROPERTIES:
:CUSTOM_ID: h:7d66adcc-5e24-4f49-9923-4816bc30a7cb
:END:
This is some text

* Newly added headline
:PROPERTIES:
:CUSTOM_ID: h:7c38f8ef-0c8c-4f17-a7da-7ed7d5eedeff
:END:
Wait, I've decided that this information is really important!

* Headline 2
:PROPERTIES:
:CUSTOM_ID: my-headline-2
:END:
This is heading number two

** Sub heading 1
:PROPERTIES:
:CUSTOM_ID: h:2c29be2d-be83-46d3-bee8-bcbe75e4160b
:END:

** Sub heading 2
:PROPERTIES:
:CUSTOM_ID: h:e148d5ed-8e55-4e26-bd5a-c414ed06fa5a
:END:

* Headline 3
:PROPERTIES:
:CUSTOM_ID: h:a1b44d60-488a-4aae-8ae4-6b98d5dbef7e
:END:
In conclusion, this is an example

(It looks better when the :PROPERTIES: drawers are collapsed of course). If you decide you want to add a nicer-looking CUSTOM_ID instead of the UUID, you can hit C-c C-x p and be prompted to change the property.

Finally, if you so desire, here is an optional helper if you want to add a CUSTOM_ID to headlines created when you use an org-capture template:

;; automatically add ids to captured headlines
(add-hook 'org-capture-prepare-finalize-hook
          (lambda () (eos/org-custom-id-get (point) 'create)))

Now go forth and make anchor links that don't break!

Update 2016-09-07

I've updated the eos/org-add-ids-to-headlines-in-file method to check for the string #+OPTIONS: auto-id:t in the file somewhere (usually at the top) and automatically add ids when the file is saved. The new version looks like:

(defun eos/org-add-ids-to-headlines-in-file ()
  "Add CUSTOM_ID properties to all headlines in the current
   file which do not already have one. Only adds ids if the
   `auto-id' option is set to `t' in the file somewhere. ie,
   #+OPTIONS: auto-id:t"
  (interactive)
  (save-excursion
    (widen)
    (goto-char (point-min))
    (when (re-search-forward "^#\\+OPTIONS:.*auto-id:t" (point-max) t)
      (org-map-entries (lambda () (eos/org-custom-id-get (point) 'create))))))

And then it's automaticallyRunning it automatically is up to you, I find it easy to leave the hook in and add the option when I am intending to publish the HTML publicly somewhere run with:

;; automatically add ids to saved org-mode headlines
(add-hook 'org-mode-hook
          (lambda ()
            (add-hook 'before-save-hook
                      (lambda ()
                        (when (and (eq major-mode 'org-mode)
                                   (eq buffer-read-only nil))
                          (eos/org-add-ids-to-headlines-in-file))))))

Author: Lee Hinman

Created: 2016-09-07 Wed 09:43

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