XSL 101

Alright, let's dive right in since getting hands dirty with code is the only way to really learn the digital ropes of anything.

Suppose that we have a list of books that a person has read during the course of a year. It is represented as XML and looks like something along the lines of:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
    <Name>In Search Of Memory</Name>
    <Author>Eric Kandel</Author>
    <Name>Lord of the Flies</Name>
    <Author>William Golding</Author>

Not an exceptionally prolific reader but at least the choice of books is excellent!

Since examining crude XML files is far from enjoyable, we would like to generate a more visually pleasing representation in the form of a PDF. There should be a simple header, page numbers in the footer, each book on an individual page and the document shall end with a cheery That's all folks! proclamation. It turns out that XSL allows us to achieve this in no time. (No wonder since it has been designed specifically for the purpose of manipulating XML input...)

Even though the following code is rather simple, it enables us to explore some of the core concepts of designing XSL style sheets. Brace yourself, here it comes:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>


   - Main template.
  <xsl:template match="/">
    <fo:root font-family="Georgia" font-size="10">

        <!-- page master -->


      <!-- page sequence typically defines a run of pages (section, chapter, etc.) -->
      <fo:page-sequence master-reference="page">

        <!-- header -->
        <fo:static-content flow-name="header">
            border-bottom="1 solid black"
            text-align="center">Books header</fo:block>

        <!-- footer -->
        <fo:static-content flow-name="footer">
            border-top="1 dotted black"
            text-align="right">A beautiful footer</fo:block>

        <!-- body -->
        <fo:flow flow-name="body">
          <!-- iterate over the books -->
          <xsl:apply-templates select="/Books/Book"/>
          <!-- last page -->
          <fo:block>That's all folks!</fo:block>

   - Individual book template,
  <xsl:template match="/Books/Book">

    <!-- book block, page break inserted after each one -->
    <fo:block page-break-after="always">
        font-weight="bold">Book #<xsl:value-of select="position()" /></fo:block>
      <fo:block>Name: <xsl:value-of select="./Name" /></fo:block>
      <fo:block>Author: <xsl:value-of select="./Author" /></fo:block>


If you feel a little overwhelmed right now, don't worry, we will go through all the individual parts in detail.

Setup & Layout

  1. It starts with an XML doctype declaration. All XML - which, by definition, implies all XSL files too - must start with that declaration in order to be considered valid.
  2. The <xsl:stylesheet> represents the root tag of the style sheet. xmlns attribute prefix denotes an XML Namespace declaration. In this style sheet, we are only using two namespaces: xsl namespace itself and the fo namespace whose main purpose of existence are visual feats, such as layout definition and element styling. These are, by far, the most common namespaces to occur in style sheets.
  3. <xsl:template match="/"> marks the beginnning of the main template of the style sheet.
  4. The master set layout, invoked by the <fo:layout-master-set> tag, describes the masters used in the document. For all intents and purposes, masters are basically page templates but let's stick to the name masters so as not to confuse them with actual XSL templates.
  5. Individual masters are defined inside the master set layout, typically using the <fo:simple-page-master> element. It is here where you can specify page height, width, margins, etc. The name of the master, useful for later reference, is specified in the master-name attribute. As you can see, each master can also contain various <fo-region-... elements, assigning specific roles to certain parts of the code.
  6. A page sequence is a run of pages with similar properties. In our case, it is the entire document. Typically, a page sequnce references a specific master, inheriting its settings, via the master-reference attribute. In our case, the master's name is, simply, page.


Give me some content finally, I hear you screaming! Alright, alright, calm down, here it comes, just look at the contents of the <fo:page-sequence> element

  1. The first <fo:static-content> is linked to the fo:region-before via its flow-name attribute. This implies that it is featured as the header of every page.
  2. The second <fo:static-content>, again via its flow-name attribute, references the fo:region-after block. Meaning that we got ourselves a footer.
  3. <fo:flow flow-name="body"> is the body of the document. It consists of flow objects arranged on its pages, the real content.
  4. As you can see, it only contains an enigmatic <xsl:apply-templates> element and then the final incantation alluding to Road Runners.


To understand what's going on here, we need to take a short detour from our dissection of the style sheet code.

The <xsl:apply-templates> element does exactly what its name suggests: it applies a template to the element(s) supplied via the select attribute. (Basically, it is a for each loop.) What template? Glad you asked! The template that matches the provided selection. In our case, that happens to be the one specified at the bottom of our style sheet.

<xsl:template match="/Books/Book"> declares a template that will match any number of Books/Book elements. This template will be executed for every single book, i.e. twice in our case.

  1. The first <fo:block> is just a wrapper for the content. Thanks to its attribute, a page break is inserted after every individual book listing.
  2. As you can see, the position() function provides us with the position - often also referred to as an index - in the "for loop" template application. In other words, it tells us what iteration we are on in the current context (1-indexed).
  3. The last two <fo:block> elements are the only parts of the style sheet that actually use the provided XML data. Using the <xsl:value-of> element, they obtain and print the name and author of each book.

More advanced concepts

Now that you are familiar with the very basics of XSL style sheet design, you might want to explore some of the more advanced concepts. Check out the left menu for the part this documentation covers. It is highly recommended you read them in the supplied order, naturally.

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