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What is a gem?

Learn what a gem can do for your Ruby applications, and what's inside of one.


A RubyGem is a software package, commonly called a "gem". Gems contain a packaged Ruby application or library. The RubyGems software itself allows you to easily download, install, and manipulate gems on your system.

Each gem has a name, version, and platform. For example, the rake gem has a 0.8.7 version. Rake's platform is ruby, which means it works on any platform Ruby runs on. Other platforms include java (like nokogiri) and mswin32 (like sqlite-ruby).

Gems can be used to extend or modify functionality within a Ruby application. Commonly, they're used to split out reusable functionality that others can use in their applications as well. Some gems also provide command line utilities to help automate tasks and speed up your work. As of Ruby 1.9.2, RubyGems is included when you install the programming language, so gems are both ubiquitous and extremely useful. If you're using an earlier version of Ruby, it's simple to install RubyGems as an addon.

For information on installing or upgrading RubyGems, please visit the download page.

Structure of a Gem

Gems contain three components:

  • Code (including tests and supporting utilities)
  • Documentation
  • gemspec

Each gem follows the same standard structure of code organization:

% tree freewill
├── bin/
│   └── freewill
├── lib/
│   └── freewill.rb
├── test/
│   └── test_freewill.rb
├── Rakefile
└── freewill.gemspec

Here, you can see the major components of a gem:

  • The lib directory contains the code for the gem
  • The test or spec directory contains tests, depending on which test framework the developer uses
  • A gem usually has a Rakefile, which the rake program uses to automate tests, generate code, and perform other tasks.
  • This gem also includes an executable file in the bin directory, which will be loaded into the user's PATH when the gem is installed.
  • Documentation is usually included in the README and inline with the code. When you install a gem, documentation is generated automatically for you. Most gems include RDoc documentation, but some use YARD docs instead.
  • The final piece is the gemspec, which contains information about the gem. The gem's files, test information, platform, version number and more are all laid out here along with the author's email and name.

More information on the gemspec file

Building your own gem

Requiring code

RubyGems modifies your Ruby load path, which controls how your Ruby code is found by the require statement. When you require a gem, really you’re just placing that gem’s lib directory onto your $LOAD_PATH. Let’s try this out in irb and get some help from the pretty_print library included with Ruby.

Tip: Passing -r to irb will automatically require a library when irb is loaded.

% irb -rpp
>> pp $LOAD_PATH

By default you have just a few system directories on the load path and the Ruby standard libraries.To add the awesome_print directories to the load path, you can require its gem:

% irb -rpp
>> require 'ap'
=> true
>> pp $LOAD_PATH[0]

Note: If you're using Ruby 1.8, you need to require 'rubygems' before requiring any gems. This is no longer necessary now that RubyGems is installed with Ruby itself.

Once you’ve required rake, then RubyGems automatically drops its lib directory on to the $LOAD_PATH. Some gems also add additional directories, such as bin, to the load path. These are completely optional and you can have many directories added to the load path by a single gem.

That’s basically it for what’s in a gem. Drop Ruby code into lib, name a Ruby file the same as your gem (so for freewill, freewill.rb) and it’s loaded by RubyGems.

The lib directory itself normally contains only one .rb file, and then another folder with the same name as the gem with more code in it. For example:

% tree freewill/
├── lib/
│   ├── freewill/
│   │   ├── core_ext/
│   │   │   ├── array.rb
│   │   │   └── string.rb
│   │   ├── user.rb
│   │   ├── widget.rb
│   │   └── ...
│   ├── freewill.rb

The Gemspec

Your application, your gem's users, and you 6 months from now need to know who wrote a gem, when, and what it does. The gemspec tells you this information and is your guide to understanding what a gem contains.

Here's an example of a gemspec file. You can learn more in how to make a gem.

% cat freewill.gemspec do |s|        = 'freewill'
  s.version     = '1.0.0'        = '2010-04-27'
  s.summary     = "Freewill!"
  s.description = "I will choose Freewill!"
  s.authors     = ["Nick Quaranto"]       = ''
  s.homepage    = ''
  s.files       = ["lib/freewill.rb"]

For more information on the gemspec, please check out the full Specification Reference which goes over each metadata field in detail.


This guide was adapted from Gonçalo Silva's original tutorial on and from Gem Sawyer, Modern Day Ruby Warrior.

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