Ben Straub

libgit2: Refs, Tags, and Branching

June 03, 2013

Refs are a powerful way of annotating a git repository’s history. Libgit2, of course, provides several ways of working with them.


There are several ways to get a handle on a ref in libgit2. If you just want one:

git_reference *ref;
git_reference_lookup(&ref, repo, "refs/heads/master");

The string argument has to be the full name of the ref; just master won’t do. There’s also a shortcut to use a more humane ref name:

git_reference_dwim(&ref, repo, "master");

That one applies the standard git precedence rules to figure out which ref you mean.

There’s also a way of getting to all of the refs in a repository:

int each_ref(git_reference *ref, void *payload)
  printf("  %s\n", git_reference_name(ref));
  return 0;

git_reference_foreach(repo, each_ref, NULL);

Once you have a git_reference*, what can you do with it? Well, you can check to see if it’s symbolic (like HEAD usually is) or direct (like master usually is):

switch(git_reference_type(ref)) {
  case GIT_REF_OID:
    char oidstr[41] = {0};
    git_oid_fmt(oidstr, git_reference_target(ref));
    printf("It's a direct reference to %s\n", oidstr);
    printf("It's a symbolic reference to '%s'\n",

You can change its target, which in combination with git_checkout_head would get close to the branch-switching behavior of git checkout:

git_reference *new_ref;
git_reference_symbolic_set_target(&new_ref, ref,

Note that a git_reference is conceptually immutable, so changing the target of one gives you a new instance rather than modifying the one you already have.

You can also create new references. This is a good start towards git checkout -b:

git_object *obj;
git_revparse_single(&obj, repo, "master");
git_reference_create(&new_ref, repo, "refs/heads/feature1",
                     git_object_id(obj), 1);


Git tags come in two flavors: lightweight and annotated. Lightweight tags are just regular references, so you can handle them with the refs API. But annotated tags have structured data stored in the object database. This is represented in libgit2 as a git_tag structure.

Again, there are several ways to get your hands on a tag annotation. You can do a direct lookup if you know the hash of the annotation:

git_oid oid;
git_tag *tag;
git_tag_lookup(&tag, repo, &oid);

If all you know is the tag’s name, it takes a couple of steps:

git_reference *ref;
git_reference_lookup(&ref, repo, "refs/tags/annotated");
git_tag *tag;
git_reference_peel((git_object**)&tag, ref, GIT_OBJ_TAG);

What can you do with one of these guys? Mostly they’re for inspecting properties:

// Get the full name of the tag
const char *name = git_tag_name(tag);
// Get the tag's message
const char *msg = git_tag_message(tag);
// Get the targeted object's ID
git_oid *target = git_tag_target_id(tag);
// Get information about the tagger
git_signature *sig = git_tag_signature(tag);

How do you create tags? As I mentioned above, lightweight tags are just references, so you’d use git_reference_create, and give it a name like refs/tags/foo. Annotated tags have their own creation call:

  git_signature *sig;
  git_signature_now(&sig, "Mr. Tagger", "");
  git_oid annotation_id;
    &annotation_id,      // newly-created object's id
    repo,                // repository
    "new_annotated_tag", // tag name
    obj,                 // tag target
    sig,                 // signature
    "A message",         // message
    1);                  // force if name collides

It turns out an annotated tag is just a lightweight tag (regular ref) that points to a tag annotation object, which in turn points to something else. So you can create an annotation with git_tag_annotation_create, then create the tag ref separately.

Don’t forget this is C; always free your newly-created heap objects with git_*_free calls. In this case:


The rule of thumb here is if you declared it as a pointer, it probably needs freeing.

What now?

I dunno. What are you trying to do? You could always check out my other libgit2 posts for some ideas. Or look for help everywhere else.

Ben Straub lives and works in Portland building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter.