GEOG 585
Open Web Mapping

JavaScript libraries and web presentation frameworks


Working with web pages is not always easy, especially when it's not your main area of expertise. Code for laying out the page, iterating through elements, toggling classes, etc., can get clunky and bloated in a hurry. Browsers can interpret the same pieces of HTML and JavaScript differently, and debugging the pages can be a mysterious process involving multiple code files and complex hierarchies of stylesheets and overrides.

There is no magic solution for these challenges; however, there are some JavaScript helper libraries that can simplify your life and your code if you make the effort to learn them. Your pages will probably also become more functional and attractive. Some of these libraries offer mainly back-end functions, others specialize in front-end elements, and others offer both.

JavaScript libraries

Many web developers like to use special JavaScript libraries that have been developed to simplify common functions and abstract away some of the idiosyncrasies between web browsers.

For example, if you select a few web pages at random and look at the source code, chances are pretty good that you'll see someone using the jQuery library. jQuery provides functions to simplify navigating and manipulating the DOM elements on your page. For example, using jQuery you can populate a dropdown list or change the CSS class of an HTML element on the fly without writing a bunch of HTML markups.

Similar alternatives to jQuery are Prototype and the Dojo toolkit, although the latter also offers some UI elements such as menus, buttons, and charts. All these libraries are build with the goal of simplifying JavaScript coding and reducing the work for you to handle differences between browsers.

Web presentation frameworks

In the previous lesson examples, you've learned how to embed your map in a web page. In the Lesson 7 walkthrough, you also briefly saw how to use the innerHtml property to manipulate a DOM element and thereby change a label on a page. But how do you craft a nice looking page around your map without devoting hundreds of hours to web design study? This is where a web presentation framework can come in handy.

Web presentation frameworks consist of JavaScript libraries, stylesheets, and "widgets" that work together to give you some convenient building blocks for nice looking pages. Some of these goodies include headers, buttons, calendar date pickers, menus, etc.

Web development frameworks are typically engineered so that your page works in a similar manner across browsers. They may also give you a head start with making your page easily localizable (i.e., flexible enough to be offered in various languages such as Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, etc.).


An example of a popular web presentation framework is Bootstrap, distributed by the Twitter development team under an open source license. In the Lesson 8 walkthrough, you'll use Bootstrap to put a nice header on your application and divide your page into sections. You'll also get the benefit of the Bootstrap stylesheets.

Similar frameworks to Bootstrap include Groundwork, Zurb's Foundation, and Yahoo's Pure. The latter used to be called YUI (yoo'-ee) and this name is still often seen in the web world. Take a few minutes and follow some of the above links to see the different styles offered by these frameworks.

Some JavaScript libraries such as the Dojo toolkit and Sencha Ext JS also offer layout elements that serve a web design function. The project jQuery UI offers a helpful set of user interface elements such as buttons, menus, date pickers, etc.

Even more powerful, we have web application frameworks for supporting the design and implementation of complex web applications and services, like the popular Python-based Django and JavaScript-based React, which also contain web presentation components.

You should be aware that web presentation frameworks sometimes require and use jQuery or other libraries to accomplish their functions.

Choosing a framework

When evaluating a web presentation framework for your project, you might consider:

  • How easy is it to get started with the framework?
  • How many online examples are available on the framework and is there an active community posting to forums, etc.?
  • How easy is it to customize the framework if I don't like the default choices or examples?
  • Is the framework hosted on a CDN or do I have to host it myself? Hosting yourself is often required anyway if you want to customize or slim down any portion of the framework, but it does take more work.
  • What are the terms of use for this framework, including attribution and licensing requirements? Just like other kinds of software, there are FOSS frameworks and proprietary ones.

A web presentation framework can help produce a nicer end product than you might be able to concoct on your own; however, a framework also introduces another level of complexity. You may have to override some of the framework's stylesheets in order to get other libraries (like Leaflet or OpenLayers) to behave in the expected way. Debugging such issues often involves multiple levels of stylesheets and a lot of time in the weeds. If you just need a very simple app, you might leave the framework aside and create your own stylesheet, or at least try to select the most simple framework available for the functionality you need.