Updated 2021-04-06: when using the relative pathname to invoke a script, I noticed the most general format wasn’t working properly! I’ve updated the echo $BASH_SOURCE in that form to echo . instead.

Hey there! Long time no blog. It’s been about a year and a half since I concluded the series on approaching bash like a developer. It’s good to be back!

One of the first things I end up doing in almost all of my bash scripts is to figure out where the heck it is. This is important so you can modularize your script. If a script starts getting too unwieldy, you can break it into a few files which get distributed together. When the main part of your script runs, it can source the other files relative to itself by using its own location.

Pretty soon you may even have a few must-have functions for all of your scripts that you include as a library. Again, you can distribute this as a file alongside your script, or say in a /lib subdirectory. By determining the location of your script with this technique, you can avoid the trouble of having to install the library file on your PATH, which is the other way of locating bash libraries when you source them.


Here’s the general solution, details further down:

HERE=$(cd "$(dirname "$BASH_SOURCE")"; cd -P "$(dirname "$(readlink "$BASH_SOURCE" || echo .)")"; pwd)

For a simpler version which returns a normalized (i.e. resolved for symlinks in the path), absolute location for the file:

HERE=$(cd -P "$(dirname "$BASH_SOURCE")"; pwd)

The down-side to that one is that it won’t properly resolve if the file is actually a symlink to a file in another directory.

If you don’t care about a normalized absolute pathname to your file, i.e. a relative pathname is ok, this is the simplest:

HERE=$(dirname "$BASH_SOURCE")

That one is for when you won’t be changing working directory before using the value, and when you don’t care how the path looks when printed.

The Long Way Round

Most languages are “package-oriented”, which means they can find other source files which are located in a path relative to the current source file without too much trouble. While bash does know the current location of the file in some sense, it doesn’t do anything to make it easy on you.

For example, you could use the special parameter $0. It expands to the name of the script file as invoked on the command line. If the script was executed by invoking its full path, such as /home/ted/scripts/myscript, this would be mostly what you need but that’s not how a script is usually invoked. More often it’s called simply the name of the script, perhaps prepended with the current directory if the script isn’t on the PATH, a la ./myscript. This doesn’t really get us where we need to be.

Not only that, $0 suffers from another issue. If the script we’re writing is a command, it can be fine. However, if we’re writing a library which is for use by other scripts, $0 will give us the name of the script which called the library, not that of the library file itself. If the goal is to figure out where the library file is so it can find other libraries relative to itself, this won’t work.

Fortunately bash provides a special variable, BASH_SOURCE, which always tells the name of the file in which it appears, whether or not that file was executed as a command or sourced by another script. So BASH_SOURCE is more generally useful than $0 for our purposes. (although if you’re looking for the command name as invoked by the user, $0 is still your buddy)

The Gang’s All HERE

Let’s say we want to store the script location in the variable HERE. Look at the following:

# This is simple and works in many cases but isn't completely general
HERE=$(dirname "$BASH_SOURCE")

The quotes may be necessary and are good practice if you haven’t changed IFS, since they protect against spaces in path names. In the rest of my examples I won’t worry about correct quotation since I usually set IFS to newline.

dirname $BASH_SOURCE gives us a few possible results based on how the script was found:

  • source ./myscript - dirname will explicitly trim the basename off the given path, returning “.”

  • source scripts/myscript - this time we’ll get the relative path “scripts”. This is really the same as the above in mechanics, I just wanted to explicitly call out “./” as a valid way to provide a relative path since it’s pretty common in practice

  • source /home/ted/scripts/myscript - a full path this time

  • source myscript - if no path was given with the script name, there are two possibilities: the file is on the PATH, in which case we’ll get the fully-qualified PATH directory in which it was found. Or the file wasn’t on the PATH but is in the current directory, in which case dirname will only see the bare filename and will return “.”. The PATH search comes first, so if both are true, PATH wins.

  • myscript - if we are executing the file rather than sourcing it there’s a slight difference. While source will find a file which isn’t on the PATH but is in the current directory, running the file as an executable will not find a file in the current directory. You have to qualify it with a directory reference, e.g. ./myscript (in which case we’ve covered this in the first option above), so myscript by itself won’t even run without being on the PATH.

The first two options return relative paths, as does the case where the file isn’t on the PATH in the second-to-last option. Note that a “.” qualifies as a a correct, if superfluous, relative path.

We can ignore the full path scenario since that will always work correctly, so long as we don’t munge it when it is given.

So coming back to the relative paths, they actually don’t inherently present a problem if we can rely on two other factors:

  • the current working directory never changes before we want to use the location, in which case a relative reference works fine because it gets tacked onto the current working directory to generate a full path

  • there are no symlinks involved. If the path to a script includes symlinks, then the relative files we’re trying to locate from it may not have similar symlinks and so appear to be missing based on the user’s invocation via the symlinked location. (remember that we’re using BASH_SOURCE, and it can only give us the symlink location)

Let’s tackle the issue of a symlink next. Consider the following filesystem layout:

├── bin
│   └── myscript -> /home/ted/scripts/myscript
└── scripts
    ├── lib.bash
    └── myscript

myscript really lives in /home/ted/scripts, but I’ve linked it into my bin directory. /home/ted/bin is on my PATH, so I can run myscript from anywhere just by executing myscript.

In addition, myscript contains the following lines:

HERE=$(dirname $BASH_SOURCE)
source $HERE/lib.bash

Unfortunately, this will not find lib.bash and will fail. The reason why is that HERE will be set to /home/ted/bin because that is where it was found on the PATH when I ran it. (it would be similar if I were sourcing it)

There are many commands to resolve symlinks but they vary on different Unix distros. readlink is the most common, but it varies in its capabilities from BSD (i.e. Mac) to GNU. In a perfect world, we could use GNU’s readlink -f and be done with it, but Mac’s readlink doesn’t support the -f option, and installing the GNU version gives the greadlink command so as not to break the Mac’s native one. Figuring this out in a one-liner (and requiring GNU readlink’s installation) is more effort than it’s worth.

Instead, you can use the bare readlink command. When readlink is run on a symlink, it returns the contents of the symlink (a path reference). That’s it. If the file isn’t a symlink, readlink returns nothing but an error. This is consistent across Mac and GNU. We can use it this way:

HERE=$(dirname $(readlink $BASH_SOURCE || echo $BASH_SOURCE))

If BASH_SOURCE is a symlink, readlink feeds it’s contents (the real path) to dirname. Otherwise readlink errors and the second part of the expression executes, which simply echos to dirname the original BASH_SOURCE.

So long as the symlink contains a full path to the script and that path doesn’t itself chain to another symlink, HERE will get the correct original directory of the script. readlink -f would resolve any number of chained symlinks, but I’m not going to be able to do the same with a one-liner and I’ve decided to be happy categorizing chained symlinks as being outside the scope of my use case.

Resolving to an Absolute Directory Name

I mentioned that relative pathnames work in most cases, but let’s say that they’re icky. We’re still getting relative pathnames in a number of cases as outlined earlier. And they really are icky since they won’t work if our script changes working directory before using HERE.

Here’s how to get the full pathname. As an added bonus, it finds the true path of any symlinks in the directory part of the path (as opposed to the file itself being a symlink).

While symlinks in the path usually aren’t harmful since they don’t tend to invalidate the relative location of sibling files, having the actual path can’t hurt and is arguably good if you’re a purist:

HERE=$(cd -P $(dirname $(readlink $BASH_SOURCE || echo $BASH_SOURCE)); pwd)

This changes to the script’s directory and prints the working path (pwd), but doesn’t affect the state of our script since it’s being done in a subshell (the $() expansion).

If we didn’t care about the true path, we could drop the -P option to cd since that resolves symlinks on the path, but as I said, it can’t hurt. When you run the bash builtin pwd, it outputs the full path of the current directory, which is what we’re looking for.

Note that for pwd, we could also have echoed the special PWD variable. It doesn’t matter, pwd is just shorter to write.

So the last thing we have to deal with is when we symlink to the executable with a relative symlink, as in the following:

├── bin
│   └── myscript -> ../scripts/myscript
└── scripts
    ├── lib.bash
    └── myscript

The problem here is that our dirname/readlink will return ../scripts, but we won’t be in the correct working directory when we try to cd to it.

The answer is just to cd to that directory first:

HERE=$(cd $(dirname $BASH_SOURCE); cd -P $(dirname $(readlink $BASH_SOURCE || echo .)); pwd)

Update: When we add the first cd, however, the second cd needs to not change directory when the file is not a link, so if readlink fails, we need to echo the current directory (.) instead.

There you go, a battle-hardened, fully normalized directory locator which handles relative symlinks on both Mac and Linux. Whew!