Applies to:

Extracting text from PDF documents

PDFTextStream provides two ways to extract text from PDF documents:

  • The com.snowtide.pdf.OutputHandler interface and its included implementations direct extracted text at the document, page, or block level to files and in-memory buffers, while optionally applying arbitrary formatting logic.
  • PDFTextStream provides a traversable document model corresponding to the content found on each page of a PDF; it can be traversed directly to selectively access and extract content based on arbitrary application and business logic

Most applications will use the former, and PDFTextStream ships with a number of OutputHandler implementations designed to satisfy common text extraction use cases.

The most commonly-used OutputHandler is com.snowtide.pdf.OutputTarget. It extracts all text from the document, page, or block being piped as efficiently as possible, aiming to produce content that is in a natural read-ordering suitable for content-oriented processing (such as indexing and search, summarization, and dictation purposes). Here's an example showing OutputTarget in use; in general, aside from minor points of configuration, all OutputHandler usage follows the same pattern:

public String getPDFText (File pdfFile) throws IOException {
    Document pdf =;
    StringWriter buffer = new StringWriter();
    stream.pipe(new OutputTarget(buffer));
    return buffer.toString();

When a pipe(OutputHandler) method is invoked, all of the content held by the object being piped is sent (in document-model order) to the OutputHandler, which can decide what content should or should not be included in the resulting extract, and what formatting should be applied to it. The OutputHandler interface essentially defines a visitor pattern over the domain of the PDFTextStream document model, making implementing custom formatting and extraction strategies very straightforward; see here for details.

pipe(OutputHandler) methods are available at all levels of the PDFTextStream document model:

So in the above example, invoking the Document.pipe(com.snowtide.pdf.OutputHandler) method sends the entire document's content to the OutputHandler. Piping a block to an OutputHandler will yield only that block's content, and so on.

OutputHandler's can generally write text content to any java.lang.Appendable, which includes java.nio.CharBuffers and This makes many use cases very easy to implement, such as sending extracted PDF text directly to a local file, which is done here for a single page:

public void savePDFText (File pdfFile, int pageNumber, File textFile) throws IOException {
    Document pdf =;
    Page page = pdf.getPage(pageNumber);
    BufferedWriter writer = new BufferedWriter(new OutputStreamWriter(new FileOutputStream(textFile)));
    page.pipe(new OutputTarget(writer));

The PDFTextStream Document Model

PDF documents specify their textual content one character at a time, without any indication of physical structure (such as lines, blocks, columns, etc) or logical organization (headers, paragraphs, captions, footers, etc). Therefore, PDFTextStream must employ advanced document understanding processes to derive the structure of each PDF document page it is presented. These processes gather characters into lines, lines into blocks, blocks into columns, and so on. The document structure that these entities represent and the API that PDFTextStream exposes for developers to work with them collectively forms the PDFTextStream document model.

The document model is necessarily hierarchical, and its API mirrors that hierarchy:

com.snowtide.pdf.Pages contain com.snowtide.pdf.layout.Blocks. Blocks may contain other Blocks or com.snowtide.pdf.layout.Lines (but not both). Lines contain com.snowtide.pdf.layout.TextUnits which roughly represent single characters.

This structure is rooted at the page-level by an object that implements the com.snowtide.pdf.layout.BlockParent interface, available via com.snowtide.pdf.Page.getTextContent(). Objects that implement the BlockParent interface contain an ordered set of Blocks, each of which represent a block of text presented on a page within a PDF document. In most circumstances, each Block instance corresponds to a paragraph of text.

Blocks, Lines, and TextUnits all implement the com.snowtide.pdf.layout.Bounded interface, meaning that each provides a com.snowtide.pdf.layout.Bounded.bounds() method that returns a bounding box rectangle object allowing for the retrieval of their positioning on the page (x- and y-coordinates, height, width, etc.). Additionally, Blocks also implement the BlockParent interface, which means that BlockParents can contain other BlockParents. This is necessitated by document structures such as tables, where distinct blocks of content must be grouped and ordered together. Use the API reference to find the particulars of how to traverse the document model – each document model entity presents a very simple list-like API that should be essentially self-explanatory.

TextUnit Details

To anyone who does not know the inner workings of PDF documents and how fonts and encodings work in the PDF document specification, "text unit" might seem to be a strange diversion from the straightforward names given to the other parts of the PDFTextStream document model ("page", "block", "line", and so on). It is worth exploring why these entities are called "TextUnits" and not simply "Characters".

A quick look at the javadoc of TextUnitcom.snowtide.pdf.layout.TextUnit reveals a few interesting methods: com.snowtide.pdf.layout.TextUnit.getCharacterSequence() and com.snowtide.pdf.layout.TextUnit.getCharCode(). Text in PDF documents is encoded as a series of character codes (available via TextUnit.getCharCode()), which are then mapped to a concrete sequence of Unicode characters (available via TextUnit.getCharacterSequence()) based on the encoding that is specified by a PDF document. That sounds straightforward enough until one realizes that PDF documents can encode more than one Unicode character for each individual raw character code.

For example, a PDF document might specify that the character code 188 should be mapped to the Unicode (and ASCII) character ‘f’. However, it could specify instead that the character code 189 should be mapped to a sequence of Unicode characters, such as "fi" or "ae". Therefore, each TextUnit instance can represent an indeterminate number of Unicode characters.

Please note that the font in effect when each TextUnit is outputted is available via com.snowtide.pdf.layout.TextUnit.getFont().

OutputHandlers: Text Extraction using Document Model Events

In many applications, simple text extraction as shown in the above sections is not enough to meet requirements. Sometimes a PDF document is so large that extracting all of its text would strain your application’s available resources. Perhaps your application needs to produce something other than plain text, such as an HTML version of the PDF document. The best way to meet such requirements is to utilize the OutputHandler interface.

The OutputHandler interface is directly analogous to the lightweight SAX XML ContentHandler interface. Just like XML, PDFTextStream defines a document model that can be traversed systematically using a random-access interface (which is called DOM in the XML world). But also just like XML, PDFTextStream provides a way to process document content in a lightweight, evented fashion. The OutputHandler interface represents this second option. It defines a range of methods that can be selectively implemented to, for example, only be notified of character-level data. An OutputHandler subclass that does this by overriding the com.snowtide.pdf.OutputHandler#textUnit(com.snowtide.pdf.layout.TextUnit) function will receive one event (in the form of a TextUnit object) for every TextUnit object in a given PDF document page or block. The OutputHandler subclass can then take whatever action is necessary given its purpose – write the TextUnit’s content to disk, send it over a network connection, make note of where the TextUnit is located on the page for display purposes, and so on.

Each com.snowtide.pdf.Document, Page, and Block instance provides a pipe(OutputHandler) function. Invoking this function on any instance of these classes will cause the appropriate PDF document model events to be sent to the provided OutputHandler object in the natural order that they occur. For example, just before starting the events associated with a block of content, com.snowtide.pdf.OutputHandler.startBlock(Block) will be called with that Block instance as a parameter; when all of the child entities of that Block have been delivered (its child blocks, its child lines, its child TextUnits, etc), com.snowtide.pdf.OutputHandler.endBlock(Block) will be called. Events bookend content like this for all of the containers in the PDFTextStream document model: the PDF document itself (com.snowtide.pdf.OutputHandler.startPDF(java.lang.String, and com.snowtide.pdf.OutputHandler.endPDF(java.lang.String,, pages (com.snowtide.pdf.OutputHandler.startPage(Page) and com.snowtide.pdf.OutputHandler.endPage(Page)), blocks (as has already been discussed), and lines (com.snowtide.pdf.OutputHandler.startLine(Line) and com.snowtide.pdf.OutputHandler.endLine(Line)).

Source code for example OutputHandler implementations are included with your PDFTextStream distribution. The pdfts.examples.GoogleHTMLOutputHandler sample will produce an XHTML document that roughly duplicates the spirit of the "view as text" page that Google provides for PDF search results. Another OutputHandler example, pdfts.examples.XMLOutputTarget, writes an XML document directly to a provided StringBuffer that includes structural document information, as well as indications of text formatting (e.g. bolding, underlining, strikethroughs, italics, etc.).

Finally, a .NET-specific OutputHandler implementation example can be found here.