Finding Libriaries and Headers for C Programs in Unix

2021-05-27 c

Need to list the installed libraries on a Unix system? Want to use a library in C and don’t know the linker flags to use? Need to find where header files are located for a package? This post answers these questions.

An example from the beginning

Let’s say I want to write a C program that uses libxml2. We know we’re going to need #include directives for the libxml2 package to refer to the header files. When we compile the program we need to have a linker flag with -l to link in it’s shared library. Keep this example in mind as you read this post. Here are the steps to arrive with what we need:

  1. Is the libxml2 library installed?
  2. What are the header files we need and where are they located?
  3. What are the linker flags?

Follow along and it will be easy to answer these 3 questions.

The pkg-config tool

The pkg-config tool will return metainformation about installed libraries on a system. This program finds information by looking at metadata files with a .pc extension named after a package. It looks in some default places. The search path can be altered by setting the PKG_CONFIG_PATH environment variable.

Let’s start out by listing all the install packages on my Raspberry Pi.

$ pkg-config --list-all
systemd            systemd - systemd System and Service Manager
libpng             libpng - Loads and saves PNG files
libpng16           libpng - Loads and saves PNG files
libsystemd         systemd - systemd Library
m17n-db            m17n-db - The m17n database used by the m17n library.
xkeyboard-config   XKeyboardConfig - X Keyboard configuration data
adwaita-icon-theme gnome-icon-theme - A collection of icons used as the basis for GNOME themes
freetype2          FreeType 2 - A free, high-quality, and portable font engine.
zlib               zlib - zlib compression library
poppler-data       poppler-data - Encoding files for use with poppler
udev               udev - udev
bash-completion    bash-completion - programmable completion for the bash shell
alsa               alsa - Advanced Linux Sound Architecture (ALSA) - Library
libgpiod           libgpiod - Library and tools for the Linux GPIO chardev
valgrind           Valgrind - A dynamic binary instrumentation framework
libmnl             libmnl - Minimalistic Netlink communication library
iso-codes          iso-codes - ISO country, language, script and currency codes and translations
shared-mime-info   shared-mime-info - Freedesktop common MIME database

First a Note about Installed Libraries

You may have libraries on your system that are installed but don’t have header files and libraries you can link against. Let me show you an example.

$ apt search libxml
libxml2/stable,now 2.9.4+dfsg1-7+deb10u1 armhf [installed,automatic]
  GNOME XML library
libxml2-dbg/stable 2.9.4+dfsg1-7+deb10u1 armhf
  Debugging symbols for the GNOME XML library

libxml2-dev/stable 2.9.4+dfsg1-7+deb10u1 armhf
  Development files for the GNOME XML library

libxml2-doc/stable 2.9.4+dfsg1-7+deb10u1 all
  Documentation for the GNOME XML library

From this we can see that only libxml2 is installed but other packages are available. Using pkg-config do we have C flags and shared libraries?

$ pkg-config --list-all | grep xml

It’s not there, pkg-config doesn’t show libxml2 as a package? We need to install the dev libraries typically for this.

$ sudo apt install libxml2-dev libxml2-doc

Once the development package is installed we can see the package is present.

$ pkg-config --list-all | grep xml
libxml-2.0         libXML - libXML library version2.


Ok now that libxml-2.0 is installed let’s list C flags and shared libraries we would use for compilation and linkage.

$ pkg-config --cflags --libs libxml-2.0
-I/usr/include/libxml2 -lxml2

If we look now at the /usr/include/libxml2 directory we can see all the header files we have available to use.

Another Example with curl

What if we want to create a program that uses curl. Let’s sum this up, note you need to infer some things using apt search curl:

$ apt install libcurl4-doc libcurl4-openssl-dev

Now we can see:

$ pkg-config --cflags --libs libcurl
-I/usr/include/arm-linux-gnueabihf -lcurl


I leave you with a question. If we go all the way back where I had the following on my system:

$ apt search libxml
libxml2/stable,now 2.9.4+dfsg1-7+deb10u1 armhf [installed,automatic]
  GNOME XML library

When pkg-config doesn’t show it listed then how is this package used? Let’s look deeper into it?

$ apt search libxml
libxml2/stable,now 2.9.4+dfsg1-7+deb10u1 armhf [installed,automatic]
  GNOME XML library
$ dpkg -l | grep libxml2                                                                                                                        1 ↵
ii  libxml2:armhf                       2.9.4+dfsg1-7+deb10u1               armhf        GNOME XML library
ii  libxml2-dev:armhf                   2.9.4+dfsg1-7+deb10u1               armhf        Development files for the GNOME XML library
ii  libxml2-doc
dpkg -L libxml2:armhf

From here we can see a shared library which other programs could dynamically link in. They’d have a challenge though if they needed to be locally built on the machine. Thus, this library is for pre-compiled programs that alreday know how to link this shared library in.

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