How and When to Use Component Context in Svelte

Written

Confidence: I've used context a bunch and looked into the internals, and I think I have a good understanding of it. If you disagree about when it's proper to use context I'd love to hear your thoughts.

I've been chatting in the Svelte Discord for the past few weeks, and it seems like the use of component context is a common misunderstanding among new users. I'm writing this as a reference to fill in the gaps and make some recommendations about when to use it or not.

Context Inheritance 🔗

Each component created in Svelte has some associated data, and this data is automatically passed down to all of its child components. The getContext and setContext functions can access data associated with a key on the context.

Data added via setContext is only visible to the current component and its children; there is no way to alter the context of a parent component. The context is just a Javascript Map with some set of keys and values, so anything that can be stored in a Map can go in the context.

// Get `data` from the parent's context
let value = getContext('data');

// Running `getContext('data')` in child components will return `value + 1`.
// Without this statement, child components would see `value`, as set in the parent.
setContext('data', value + 1)

// We can also add new keys.
setContext('other-data', 11);

Svelte sets up some internal state for each component it creates, and this includes the context for the component. Looking inside the Svelte source at src/runtime/internal/Component.ts, we see that it initializes the component's context with a copy of the parent's context:

const $$: T$$ = component.$$ = {
    // ... other data initialized here too
    context: new Map(parent_component ? parent_component.$$.context : []),
}

The getContext and setContext functions simply call get and set on this Map.

When to use Context 🔗

Many people who first learn about context see it as a panacea for state distribution, and they end up reaching for it in many cases where other approaches are simpler.

In reality, context is best used when you want to share some state only with a select subtree of components in your application, and there may be multiple subtrees in the application with their own versions of this state.

For example, a top-level chart component may use context to share information specific to that chart with its various subcomponents. Each instance of the chart throughout the application would have its own context. The Svelte Layer Cake chart package uses this approach.

Let's take a look at how the example code on the Layer Cake home page would look using properties instead of context.

<LayerCake x='x' y='y' {data}
  let:chartInfo>
    <Svg {chartInfo}>
        <AxisX {chartInfo}/>
        <AxisY {chartInfo}/>
        <Line  {chartInfo} color="#f0c"/>
    </Svg>

    <Canvas {chartInfo}>
        <Scatter {chartInfo} color="#0fc"/>
    </Canvas>

    <Html {chartInfo}>
        <Labels {chartInfo}/>
    </Html>
</LayerCake>

While the actual LayerCake component exposes the chart information via context, in this example the information is exposed as a property on the slot instead, and then manually passed into every component nested under the chart. Clearly, this is messier than just using context.

So, if your needs don't fit into this scenario, why not use context anyway? Well, it does have downsides:

  • Risk of unrelated components trying to use the same context key and overwriting each other's data. There are ways around this though.
  • You have to remember to abide by the restrictions on when context can be accessed.
  • Development tools such as the Svelte compiler and editor plugins are unable to check mistakes in your context usage.
  • If you're using Typescript, the alternatives retain type information much better.

At the end of this article I talk about two other methods of sharing state within a component tree that may be preferable.

Reactive Data in Context 🔗

A common question is how to put reactive data in the context. Since context data can only be accessed when the component is initializing, and a child component is unable to alter its parent's context, this seems impossible at first glance. Fortunately, the solution is simple: instead of setting a value in the context, use a store instead.

// Parent.svelte
let x = writable(0);
setContext('data', x);

// Child.svelte
let x = getContext('data');
$: value = $x + 1;

In the example below, X is a store set in the context of the top-level component, and the Child component sets its own store Y which is shared between it and its Grandchild component.

Accessing Context at the Right Time 🔗

Context can only be accessed in the top level of the component script while it is initializing. Internally, Svelte sets a global current_component variable as a component is initializing, and getContext and setContext reference it to determine which context they should be getting and setting.

current_component is set only when the component is being created and running its top-level code for the first time, so this is the only time that you can call the context functions. Calling them at any other time will cause an error.

Concretely, this means that you can't call getContext or setContext from any of these places:

  • A reactive statement (i.e. a $: expression)
  • A template expression
  • An asynchronous callback or promise chain
  • A function in another file. (Well, you can if you're careful to only call that function at startup time. Still, generally not a good idea.)
  • onMount, onDestroy, or other lifecycle functions.

As of Svelte 3.23.2 it actually does work to call getContext during onMount but I don't think this is intended, so don't do it.

Simply put, make sure to get your context data right at the start, even if you don't need it immediately.

Preventing Key Interference 🔗

One risk using context is that if you choose a generic enough name, such as info, some other component in the tree may unwittingly overwrite your data by setting the same key.

This can be avoided by choosing a relatively unique string, but there is a better solution. Because the context is a Javascript Map, the keys can be almost anything, including objects.

// context.js
// Export an object
export default {};
// or maybe this instead
export default Symbol('datakey');

// component.Svelte
<script>
    import { setContext } from 'svelte';
    import contextKey from './context';
    setContext(contextKey, someData);
</script>

Now the context key is a reference to a particular object It's impossible for anything else to interfere, since other uses of this context data need to intentionally import that object from context.js to use the key.

This is slightly less convenient than just using a string, but it adds some nice robustness and also removes the risk of typos in the context key. That said, using a reasonably unique string should be fine in most cases.

Alternatives to Context 🔗

Props and Event Dispatching 🔗

The simplest way to distribute state throughout the application is to use component properties and event dispatching. Parent components pass data down to their children using the properties, and see changes either through the components dispatching events, use of the bind: syntax, or updates to stores.

When a particular piece of state needs to be used widely throughout an application, this can become burdensome. There is where global stores are useful.

Global Stores 🔗

When it's feasible, my favorite method of distributing state across a large number of components is to define a store in another Javascript file, and just import it everywhere that it's needed.


Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments, please send me a note on Twitter or comment on dev.to.