Fun with InDesign libraries

library-iconWe’ve all been there before. Situations where you’re working on long documents like big reports, magazines or better yet, catalogues, and you realise you have to reuse graphic elements in your layout. So what do you do? You design your element and duplicate it to use on other pages, changing and tweaking it a little bit as you go along. And along the way you know that it would just have been easier to have started out with a fresh copy of that object every time instead. InDesign libraries allow you to store and reuse graphic elements throughout your layout, whether they’re text frames, linked graphics or groups of objects. Here are a few interesting uses and tips for working with library items.

A few handy library applications

The price tag

Price tags are a classic example when it comes to libraries. They usually consist  of a collection of objects that represent the price or promotion of an item in your work. And you need those individual items to look exactly the same throughout your catalogue. Maybe you have different coloured versions, or promotional versions. Just keep a dummy version of your price tags in a separate library and you can start spreading them through your layout. The only thing you have to do is change the actual number.

You can add as many price tag versions as you need.

You can add as many price tag versions as you need.

Making barred prices like this look the same is often time consuming so a library helps.

Making barred prices look the same is often time consuming so a library helps.

Table structures or review boxes

Also quite common are mini templates of complete layout elements that frequently reoccur in your work. Say you have a magazine that does music album reviews. Why not end your article with a “verdict” box that holds a few predefined text frames that are ready to go? And you can add these as separate versions, choosing the one you need from your library as you go along.

Choose between a one or two column layout.

Choose between a one or two column layout.

Let’s talk tables. Editing individual rows, columns and cells require a lot of manual labor. And this is time that you’d rather spend doing actual design work. So decide on a few table designs and keep them close in your library. This way you can drag out a fresh copy anytime you need it and start inputting text or pasting in numbers from Excel.

Tip: I noticed that it’s usually easier to remove rows or columns than it is to add them, so make sure you add more than enough rows and columns before you save them in your library. That way you only have to remove the ones you don’t need at the end.

Make sure the tables are long enough before you save them.

Make sure the tables are long enough before you save them.

Logo alignment

This technique might not be as well known as the previous ones. When you’re dealing with a clients corporate identity it’s important to respect the logo placement guidelines. Meaning that some logo’s need to have a minimum safe distance from the page border or from other elements. Again this can be a time-consuming process where you have to keep track of the distance between the logo and other elements. Try this instead: drag out a few perfectly designed graphic frames following the corporate guidelines. These measurements are usually applied as percentages e.g. a logo that needs to keep at least 50% of its height away from the outer edge of a page. If you set these things up before you drag the logo to a library you’ll also save these safe zones in the item. Meaning you can just drag out the logo when needed knowing you’ll always have the “padding” you need around it. Plus it doesn’t matter how big you scale the logo afterwards because the padding will just grow with it.

This logo has been perfectly aligned following the corporate guidelines.

This logo has been perfectly aligned following the corporate guidelines.

How to start with a library

Setting up a library is very easy to do. First you choose File > New > Library… and save your library on your hard drive. Be sure to give it a good descriptive name since that’s gonna act as the panel name inside of InDesign. Once you’ve saved it you’ll see your library item appear on screen as a new panel.


Adding items to a library is very simple

  • Click and drag items to the library to add them as untitled objects.
  • ALT/OPT click and drag items to the library to name them as you add these. The Item Information window that becomes available also allows you to set the object type and an object description. You can set up these criteria to later quickly search for specific items or rearrange your library items in the panel based on these criteria. Personally I’d love to be able to add object types of my own to this list for specific jobs but unfortunately these options haven’t been updated since the stone age. So I know what I’ll be asking for Christmas this year.


To place items from a library onto the page is just as easy:

  • Click and drag items from your library to your page to place them on the cursor position.
  • Select the  item in the library, click the library panel menu and choose Place Item(s) to place the item on the same co-ordinates from where you originally added them to the library.

A few extra library tips:

  • Unfortunately there is no link between the placed library item and the original instance that’s still sitting in the library. It doesn’t work like Symbols inside of Adobe Illustrator. This means that updating already placed items globally is a pain. So make sure you apply the necessary text- and object styles to your items before you save them in the library. This way you can still edit the styles after having placed them on the page. It’s not perfect but it’s better than nothing.
  • Usually you’re not the only person working on large layout jobs so there’s a good chance that your colleagues need to work with the same library. Once a library on a shared drive has been opened it locks itself meaning nobody else can open it anymore. To overcome this you can use the following procedure:

On a Mac: it’s pretty easy to share a library file on a server with other Mac users. Simply select the library.indl file in the Finder and use the shortcut CMD+I to open the info window. There you click the Locked button to lock the file. This means that you cannot add new items to the library, nor can you edit existing ones. But it does allow other network users to open up the same library file. This works because InDesign is just opening up a copy of that file when you double click it. I know that not being able to edit the existing library might sound like a pain but its sometimes better than having 5 different versions among users.


On a PC: the locked file trick doesn’t work for PCs unfortunately. On a PC you have to open the library.indl file by using the actual Open command inside of InDesign. There you select the library and choose “Copy” from the bottom options to open a copy of the file.


  • If you have activated the “Paste Remembers Layers” option from the Layers panel menu, then the actual layer will also be saved in the library. This means that this original layer will automatically be added to your document when you place your library items.
  • Items with linked graphics in them will keep this link when being placed on your page. This means that you still need the original links as the images don’t get embedded into the library, only the reference to the image so be careful.
  • Libraries are external files that have to be opened manually to have them available in InDesign. But because they are stored as panels you can dock them in your interface and then save that configuration as a custom workspace. That way InDesign will open up all these external library files when you switch to that workspace, so no more manual looking for your files and just let InDesign do all the work for you.
Dock and customize your libraries in your interface.

Dock and customize your libraries in your interface.

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18 Comments on “Fun with InDesign libraries

  1. Good stuff, Bart. I think people overlook these little things. The locked folder can actually be a positive since it prevents unauthorized changes. If you do need to allow more than one user to change them though, you use folders of snippets.

  2. When creating items containing numerals, I was taught use 8 as it’s often the widest. That way you can be sure everything else will fit.

  3. Ah Libraries -

    Mostly I have been using them for when someone decides that the whole page layout MUST change. Then MUST change again. Then MUST change again. Then MUST change again.

    Then MUST go back to version X.

    I simply create a library – add the content of the page into the library. Start again. I can easily go back different versions.

    Most handy for pages containing photographs that have captions. The days of moving things to the Pasteboard has gotten too crowded!!! I needed more space. Libraries offer that space. I can shift images with captions into a library and move them back when they decide they MUST go back in. No more looking for that pesky pasteboard item – or accidentally deleting a blank page with items on the pasteboard!

  4. One thing though, for the company logo and the safe zones.

    Surely it would be better to use a Text Wrap and input the distances there?

    I don’t like floaty boxes in my documents.

    • Hi Eugene,
      The text wrap option will only help you out if you want to keep your logo away from text, but it doesn’t work if you need to keep your logo away from images, frames, margins or page edges.

      So the grouped frames only act as a portable guide sort of speak for easy positioning anywhere in your layout.

  5. A couple more uses for library that people tend to overlook :

    Swatch import – extremely handy when you need to import common corporate swatches with set values – create a set of graphic frames filled with the swatches (and if needed use their strokes to double your fun) and drag them from the library to a new document – Voila, instant swatch load. Just delete what you just imported, the swatches will remain.

    Styles import – same trick with any type of styles – paragraph, character, object, tables, cells… Any formatting applied to a library item is remembered and, *if missing from the target document*, loaded in the relevant panels. I find this far easier than the loading options from the panel menus, if somewhat less precise.

    A nifty trick based on the two above : did you know that if you load a library item formatted with a named style or swatch into a document *already containing a swatch/style with the EXACT SAME name*, the library item will adopt the values of the settings in the document, even if different from its own ? I use it all the time to make libraries more versatile.

    Example : I color some stuff with a swatch name “main color”, set to 70% black, then upload it all to my library. Then, in my document, I create a swatch named “main color” set to, say, 100% M 100% Y for some punchy orange. I import my library item, and magic – it tints it all orange where it was defined as “main color” ! If in a different document “main color” is set to 100% Cyan, then the item will look blue, and so on. Anything colored without swatch links or with different swatches will be untouched. Same with styles, which can make one library item VERY reusable and versatile.

    • Hi Quentin,

      Thanks for the extra tips! I was aware of these things but didn’t really think about putting these in the article too. But anyway they are great, thanks for sharing!

  6. Thanks for the article because I thought that Library of InDesign were dead, because Bridge (with MiniBridge) is a very good tool to do all this and more.
    Snippets are brilliants too and linked anchored objects are very useful for me.
    But Quentin tricks are very interesting indeed to load default parameters.

  7. A question, really. Is there a place where all the object type choices in the InDesign libraries are defined? Those such as “Text” seem self explanatory, but it would be nice to know exactly what is meant by, for example,”Geometry” and “Structure.”

    Thanks –

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