Parsing PDF Documents in Rust

In my spare time I’m a volunteer with my state’s emergency services and we have our own web app for managing unit-specific things like attendance, vehicle checks, newsletters, on-call rosters, and so on.

It’s actually a really useful tool, but there is one feature that really annoys me… The list of member contact details is only available as a PDF and not a format that can be imported into your phone’s contacts.

This means if you need to contact someone you first need to:

  1. download the contact list to your phone
  2. zoom in so you can read the table’s rows
  3. find the person’s name
  4. pan over to their phone number
  5. Copy the number and paste it into your messaging app

I need to do this infrequently enough that it’s not worth manually creating a new contact, yet just often enough to be annoying. It’d be really nice if I just needed to download the contact list once and have all the information available on my phone… There must be a better way!

I’ve contacted one of the developers to see if we can get a better solution but in the meantime figured that, as a programmer, I should be able to bodge something together.

Unfortunately the code written in this article isn’t publicly available because it contains personally identifiable information.

If you found this useful or spotted a bug, let me know on the blog’s issue tracker!

What’s in a PDF?

So our first job is to take a PDF document like this…

Screenshot of a PDF containing a table with redacted cells

… and extract the data in the table.

That’s easy enough, there is already a Rust crate (unsurprisingly called pdf) for parsing PDF documents so we can reuse that.

For these sorts of jobs I won’t do much planning up-front, instead I’ll click around the crate’s API docs and figure out how to use the provided functionality to do what I want.

After a bit of clicking through I figured out that pdf::file::File represented the overall document and was just a fancy list of pdf::object::Pages, where a Page’s content is just a list of Operations… And that’s where my understanding of PDF documents was completely turned on its head.

You see, I used to believe that a PDF was a declarative format containing a bunch of high-level objects like Table and Heading and so on (almost like HTML)… However, after skimming through the PDF format spec from Adobe (which is itself a PDF - how meta!) it was evident that PDF is more like an interpreted programming language where you’ll go through each Operation in a page executing draw calls and updating the renderer’s state as you go.

That makes things interesting. It means I can’t just look for a (hypothetical) Table object in the DOM and iterate over its cells field. Instead I’ll need to iterate over every instruction and keep track of the current state.

These instructions are pretty low-level, too. Here are (as best I can tell) the instructions for drawing the “Surname” and “First Name” cells.

BT :
Td : 31.19, 555.43
Tj : "Surname"
ET :
Q :
re : 184.26, 566.93, 155.91, -17.01
f :
m : 184.26, 566.93
l : 184.26, 549.92
S :
m : 184.26, 566.93
l : 340.16, 566.93
S :
m : 340.16, 566.93
l : 340.16, 549.92
S :
q :
g : 0
BT :
Td : 187.09, 555.43
Tj : "First Name"
ET :

Luckily the PDF reference from earlier included a table explaining the different op-codes.

BTBegin Text
ETEnd Text
gSet Grey Level
lLine To
mMove To
QRestore graphics state
qSave graphics state
reAppend rectangle to path
TdMove text position
TjShow text

So PDF documents don’t even contain tables, it’s all just a lie!

To identify the rows and cells in a document I’ll need to find each of the text objects (everything between BT and ET operations) and do probably something funky with their coordinates.

First, I’ll create something to represent text objects and stub out a type which we can take a stream of Operations and turn them into a stream of TextObjects.

// src/

fn text_objects(operations: &[Operation]) -> impl Iterator<Item = TextObject<'_>> + '_ {
    TextObjectParser {
        ops: operations.iter(),

#[derive(Debug, Clone, PartialEq)]
struct TextObject<'src> {
    pub x: f32,
    pub y: f32,
    pub text: Cow<'src, str>,

#[derive(Debug, Clone)]
struct TextObjectParser<'src> {
    ops: std::slice::Iter<'src, Operation>,

Turning TextObjectParser into an Iterator turned out to be pretty easy thanks to pattern matching. I know ahead of time exactly which operations I’m looking for and what their operands will be so each pattern can be its own branch in a big match statement. Then the language will automatically make sure I’ve got the correct number of operands with the correct types, and bind the information I want to extract to local variables.

The idea is that every time someone calls TextObjectParser’s next() method we’ll keep consuming Operations, matching on their operator and operands while updating some temporary state, then when we see an "ET" operation we yield what we’ve seen to the caller.

// src/

impl<'src> Iterator for TextObjectParser<'src> {
    type Item = TextObject<'src>;

    fn next(&mut self) -> Option<Self::Item> {
        let mut last_coords = None;
        let mut last_text = None;

        while let Some(Operation { operator, operands }) = {
            match (operator.as_str(), operands.as_slice()) {
                ("BT", _) => {
                    // Clear all prior state because we've just seen a
                    // "begin text" op
                    last_coords = None;
                    last_text = None;
                ("Td", [Primitive::Number(x), Primitive::Number(y)]) => {
                    // "Text Location" contains the location of the text on the
                    // current page.
                    last_coords = Some((*x, *y));
                ("Tj", [Primitive::String(text)]) => {
                    // "Show text" - the operation that actually contains the
                    // text to be displayed.
                    last_text = text.as_str().ok();
                ("ET", _) => {
                    // "end of text" - we should have finished this text object,
                    // if we got all the right information then we can yield it
                    // to the caller. Otherwise, use take() to clear anything
                    // we've seen so far and continue.
                    if let (Some((x, y)), Some(text)) = (last_coords.take(), last_text.take()) {
                        return Some(TextObject { x, y, text });
                _ => continue,


This isn’t a serious program, so it means we can tailor it to work just for the contact list PDF and not worry about recognising arbitrary tables (which would easily require an order of magnitude more effort).

To identify “rows” I’m just going to group items by their vertical location. That means we’ll be including all bits of text in the document and treating them as rows with one column, but they can be filtered out later.

There is a group_by() method in the itertools crate, but I figured I may as well roll my own because this is just a simple project and group_by() is only 50 lines or so.

Don’t be intimidated by the number of generics and the complicated where-clause, all will be explained in a sec.

// src/

use std::{iter::Peekable, marker::PhantomData};

pub fn group_by<I, F, K>(iterator: I, grouper: F) -> impl Iterator<Item = Vec<I::Item>>
    I: IntoIterator,
    F: FnMut(&I::Item) -> K,
    K: PartialEq,
    GroupBy {
        iter: iterator.into_iter().peekable(),
        _key: PhantomData,

struct GroupBy<I: Iterator, F, K> {
    iter: Peekable<I>,
    grouper: F,
    _key: PhantomData<fn() -> K>,

The idea is we’ll take something which can be turned into an iterator and invoke the specified function to get some sort of “key”.

From there we can just keep popping items off the iterator until we find an item with a different key (or run out of items). That tells us we’ve found all items in the group and can yield the group to the caller.

// src/

impl<I, F, K> Iterator for GroupBy<I, F, K>
    I: Iterator,
    F: FnMut(&I::Item) -> K,
    K: PartialEq,
    type Item = Vec<I::Item>;

    fn next(&mut self) -> Option<Self::Item> {
        let first_item =;
        let key = (self.grouper)(&first_item);

        let mut items = vec![first_item];

        while let Some(peek) = self.iter.peek() {
            if (self.grouper)(peek) != key {

                    .expect("Peek guarantees there is another item"),


Something I like about this implementation is that we can use the ? operator at the very top to return early when the underlying stream of items is empty.

That reduces a lot of the complexity, whereas your typical for-loop implementation would constantly need to handle the case where there may or may not be a key yet.

Parsing the Contact List

Now we’ve got some primitives for extracting text from a page and grouping it into rows, let’s make some functions for parsing member information from a Page.

I’ve decided to represent the parsed data as a ContactList which contains a list of MemberInfos.

// src/

pub struct ContactList {
    pub members: Vec<MemberInfo>,

pub struct MemberInfo {
    pub first_name: String,
    pub surname: String,
    pub email: String,
    pub mobile: String,

Using the text_objects() and group_by() helpers from before, we get a parse_members_on_page() function which looks something like this.

// src/

fn parse_members_on_page(page: &Page) -> Result<Vec<MemberInfo>, Error> {
    let content = match &page.contents {
        Some(c) => c,
        None => return Ok(Vec::new()),

    let text_objects = text_objects(&content.operations);

    let rows = group_by(text_objects, |t| t.y)
        // ignore everything up to the table header
        .skip_while(|row| row[0].text != "Surname")
        // then skip the header
        // every row in the contact table is guaranteed to have 6 cells
        .take_while(|row| row.len() == 6);

    let mut info = Vec::new();

    for row in rows {


Again, we only ever want things to work with this PDF so identifying the table’s header is just a case of finding the first “row” where the first cell contains "Surname".

We also know that our table has 6 columns and that every cell will have something in it, so that gives us a nice condition to pass to take_while().

Parsing a single row and copying the individual cell text into the MemberInfo is pretty easy to do with slice patterns.

// src/

use heck::TitleCase;

fn parse_row(row: Vec<TextObject<'_>>) -> Result<MemberInfo, Error> {
    match row.as_slice() {
        [TextObject { text: surname, .. },
         TextObject { text: first_name, .. },
         TextObject { text: email, .. },
         TextObject { text: mobile, .. },
         _, _] =>
            Ok(MemberInfo {
                surname: surname.to_title_case(),
                first_name: first_name.to_string(),
                email: email.to_string(),
                mobile: mobile.to_string(),
        other => Err(anyhow::anyhow!(
            "A row should have exactly 6 text fields, found {}",

In the original document, surnames are in UPPERCASE (e.g. BRYAN) so we use the heck crate to convert them to the more useful TitleCase.

I don’t particularly want my phone to scream a person’s name whenever I get a message from them.

We can wrap everything up into a single parse() function by iterating over each page in a pdf::file::File and appending the parsed MemberInfo to a list.

// src/

use std::anyhow::{Context, Error};
use pdf::file::File;

pub fn parse(pdf_blob: &[u8]) -> Result<ContactList, Error> {
    let pdf = File::from_data(pdf_blob)
        .context("Unable to parse the data as a PDF")?;

    let mut members = Vec::new();

    for (i, page) in pdf.pages().enumerate() {
        let page = page?;
        let members_on_page = parse_members_on_page(&page)
            .with_context(|| format!("Unable to parse the members on page {}", i + 1))?;


    Ok(ContactList { members })

The code itself isn’t overly interesting, although I’ve chosen to use the anyhow crate for managing my errors. That way I can use the Context extension trait to attach useful context to errors so when my code (inevitably) fails I’ll be greeted with something like this…

Error: Unable to parse the contacts list

Caused by:
    0: Unable to parse the members on page 1
    1: Found a row containing "Michael"

… Instead of something useless like “Unable to parse the file”.

Exporting to Google Contacts

The final part of our task is exporting the parsed data in a form that Google Contacts can handle.

Rust has a lot of useful libraries for writing command-line utilities, but for this application we’ll only need the structopt crate for declaring something our command-line arguments can be parsed into.

// src/bin/

use structopt::StructOpt;
use std::path::PathBuf;

#[derive(Debug, Clone, StructOpt)]
pub struct Args {
    #[structopt(short, long, parse(from_os_str),
                help = "The file to parse, or STDIN if not provided.")]
    input: Option<PathBuf>,
    #[structopt(short, long, parse(from_os_str), default_value = "contacts.csv",
                help = "The file to save the contacts to")]
    output: PathBuf,

We’ll also give it a utility method for parsing the input, correctly switching between a file or stdin depending on whether a --input argument was provided.

// src/bin/

use std::io::Read;
use anyhow::{Context, Error};

impl Args {
    fn input(&self) -> Result<Vec<u8>, Error> {
        match &self.input {
            Some(filename) => std::fs::read(filename)
                .with_context(|| format!("Couldn't read \"{}\"", filename.display())),
            None => {
                let mut buffer = Vec::new();
                    .read_to_end(&mut buffer)
                    .context("Unable to read from STDIN")?;

According to their docs, Google Contacts can import contacts from vCards or a CSV file. They’ve provided a CSV template so that’s what I’ve decided to export my data as.

Inspecting the contacts.csv file shows we’ve got quite a lot of fields to choose from.

$ cat ~/Downloads/contacts.csv | sed -e 's/,/\n/g'
Given Name
Additional Name
Family Name
Yomi Name
Given Name Yomi
Additional Name Yomi
Family Name Yomi
Name Prefix
Name Suffix
Short Name
Maiden Name
Billing Information
Directory Server
Group Membership
E-mail 1 - Type
E-mail 1 - Value
IM 1 - Type
IM 1 - Service
IM 1 - Value
Website 1 - Type
Website 1 - Value

In this case we only have data for a couple fields so all the others can be skipped.

  • Given Name
  • Family Name
  • E-mail 1 - Value
  • Phone 1 - Type (will always be "Mobile")
  • Phone 1 - Value

Because the export-to-google-contacts executable is so simple, we can throw the argument parsing, contact list parsing, and CSV generation all into a single main() function and call it a day.

// src/bin/

use csv::Writer;
use std::fs::File;

fn main() -> Result<(), Error> {
    let args = Args::from_args();

    let raw = args.input()?;
    let contacts = contacts_parser::parse(&raw)
        .context("Unable to parse the contacts list")?;

    let w = File::create(&args.output)
        .with_context(|| format!("Unable to open \"{}\"", args.output.display()))?;
    let mut csv_writer = Writer::from_writer(w);

            "Given Name", "Family Name", "E-mail 1 - Value",
            "Phone 1 - Type", "Phone 1 - Value",
        .context("Unable to write the header")?;

    for member in &contacts.members {
        let MemberInfo { surname, first_name, email, mobile, .. } = member;

        let row = &[

            .with_context(|| format!("Unable to write \"{} {}\"", first_name, surname))?;


Once that is done, we can use cargo run to run the program and convert the contact list PDF to a CSV.

$ cargo run -- -i ~/Downloads/contact-list.pdf
  Finished dev [unoptimized + debuginfo] target(s) in 0.03s
   Running `target/debug/export-to-google-contacts -i /home/michael/Downloads/contact-list.pdf`
$ ls
  Cargo.lock  Cargo.toml  src
  target tests contacts.csv
$ wc contacts.csv
  57   70 3196 contacts.csv

Now it’s just a case of importing the contacts.csv on a computer and letting your phone pick it up next time it does a sync.


This was a fun little experiment!

Honestly, I was expecting it to be a massive pain and that I’d need to traverse some sort of DOM to extract data, something that tends to be a quite verbose in statically typed languages.

Taking the time to understand the PDF spec and writing that text_objects() helper really simplified things, though. Instead of needing half a weekend I was able to hack my way from nothing to 50+ new contacts in under 90 minutes and 400 lines of code.

Let me know if you find these sorts of “programming Rust in the real world” articles interesting. I always enjoy hearing war stories from fellow programmers!