PDF Output

CollectiveAccess can output data as formatted PDFs in several contexts:

  1. As a Report presenting formatted data from the results of a search or browse.

  2. As a Summary of data from an individual item

  3. As a set of Printable Labels including formatted data from items retrieved from the results of a search or browse.

  4. As formatted letters and documents (eg. deeds of gift, thank you letters, receipts) for an object or lot.

  5. As a formatted summary or invoice from a metadata element, or a specific repeat of a metadata element.

PDF output in CollectiveAccess is generated from an HTML/CSS page layout using templates stored in the app/printTemplates. The HTML output by these templates is converted to PDF using one of several rendering engines. Any PDF output format can be modified or customized by editing or adding templates in app/printTemplates.

The HTML templates are standard views, the same as any other in the CollectiveAccess application. You can use PHP code with the view and include subviews using $this->render(). For label and summary views you can also use the {{{variable}}} tag format to include variables and display templates directly in your HTML – no PHP required. The variables passed to the template view vary by context and are described below.

How PDF Templates are Evaluated

When a PDF output is requested, CollectiveAccess loads the specified template views and provides them with the data required for display. The view is then evaluated: any executable in the view is run and substitution of curly-brace tags is performed. The transformed HTML text of the view is then passed to dompdf for conversion to a PDF.

The evaluation process varies somewhat by context:

Report templates are passed a result set and evaluated as a single page. The template is provided with a search result instance (subclass of SearchResult) and expected to render a full HTML page for the entire result set. This is typically done with embedded PHP code.

Summary templates are similarly evaluated as a single page, but are provided with the model instance (subclass of BaseModel) for the item being summarized rather than a result set. Letter templates work similarly to summaries.

Label templates are evaluated once per label and placed on the page by the PDF generator in the appropriate location for the selected label format. Label templates are passed a model instance for the item for which the label is being produced.

Creating PDF Formats

The app/printTemplates directory contains subdirectories for each context – results (aka. report), summary, labels, letter and element. Directly within those directories are the standard formats and supporting files for each context.

Custom, printable templates can be added by creating new files in the local directory contained within.


Although templates placed directly in the context directory will work normally, they may be overwritten during application updates. Always place custom templates in local.

Custom formats must generate a full, freestanding and well-formed HTML document. It also must include a header with basic information about the template and how it is to be used. The header is a collection of named values, with all names beginning with the @ character. The following values are required:






The name of the template. Will be used in the user interface to refer to the template. Must be unique with the context.


One of: page, pageStart, pageEnd, fragment

Indicates the role of the file within the template. Files of @type “page” are treated as templates by CollectiveAccess. All others are treated as sub-components to be included by a “page.” “pageStart” files should contain content to be output before the page, “pageEnd” should contain content to be output after the page. @type “fragment” indicates a file that will be included within the body of a page. NOTE: this option is available from version 1.7.6.


letter, legal, A4 (most common)

The full list is: 4a0, 2a0, a0, a1, a2, a3, a4, a5, a6, a7, a8, a9, a10, b0, b1, b2, b3, b4, b5, b6, b7, b8, b9, b10, c0, c1, c2, c3, c4, c5, c6, c7, c8, c9, c10, ra0, ra1, ra2, ra3, ra4, sra0, sra1, sra2, sra3, sra4, letter, legal, ledger, tabloid, executive, folio, commerical #10 envelope, catalog #10 1/2 envelope, 8.5x11, 8.5x14, 11x17


One of: letter, landscape


ca_objects, ca_entities or any other primary table separated with commas, or * for all tables

Restricts the template to one or more tables. If restricted, CollectiveAccess will only use the template when dealing with records from the specified tables(s).


type code for record

Limits which record type the template will be available for.


List including any of the following, separated by commas: search_browse_thumbnail, search_browse_full, search_browse_list, editor_relationship_bundle

Restrict visibility of template to one or more specific areas in the user interface. The search_browse_* values restrict access to search/browse results with a given view selected (thumbnails/full/list). editor_relationship_bundle restricts the template to the list of export options displayed on relationship bundles in record editors. If @showOnlyIn is omitted the template will be visible in all relevant areas. NOTE: this option is available from version 1.7.6.

For labels the following additional header entries defining the geometry of the label form are also required:






The distance from the left edge of the page to the left side of the first label



The distance from the right edge of the page to the right side of the first label



The distance from the top of the page to the top of the first label



The distance from the bottom of the page to the bottom of the first label



The distance between each row of labels



The distance between each column of labels



The width of a label



The height of a label

All measurements require a numeric values followed by a unit specifier. Allowable units are:













The header should be in an HTML or PHP comment. Here is an example header in a PHP comment:

* Template configuration:
* @name Avery 8164
* @type label
* @pageSize letter
* @pageOrientation portrait
* @tables ca_objects
* @marginLeft 0.125in
* @marginRight 0.125in
* @marginTop 0.25in
* @marginBottom 0.25in
* @horizontalGutter 0in
* @verticalGutter 0.25in
* @labelWidth 4in
* @labelHeight 3.375in

From CollectiveAccess Version 1.7, you can temporarily disable a template using the @disable header setting. Simply set it to a non-zero value to remove the template from use.

Your template view will be provided with a set of variables to work with that is dependent upon the context. Below is a list of variables by template context:

For Search Results



Example Values


The search expression

For Browse Results



Example Values


An instance of BrowseEngine representing the current browse


An array of current browse criteria


An array of available browse facets


An HTML <select> tag with available facets


An array of facets that have content to show


An array with specification for all facets


Simplified array of current browse criteria for display, with keys set to facet label and values set to a delimited list of facet values

For Summaries

For Labels



Example Values


The absolute server path to the directory containing the current view


The title of the label set

Using View Variables

The variables provided may be accessed via PHP code within the view by calling the view’s setVar() method with the variable name. This code fragment will print out the current search phrase for search result views:

<?php print $this->getVar('search'); ?>

For label and summary views, an alternative PHP-free {{{variable}}} syntax can also be used. Surrounding the name of the variable with sequences of three curly-braces will cause its value to be substituted into the view.


These curly-brace tags should be placed in the HTML of your view. They are not valid PHP and will cause errors if placed within PHP code. The curly-brace syntax is not available in results views.

In addition to variables, display templates may also be evaluated and output using the curly-brace syntax. For example:

{{{Identifier is ^ca_objects.idno and titles is ^ca_objects.preferred_labels.name}}}

would cause the text to be output with the ^-prefixed data specifications substituted with values.

Setting the Download File Name

A custom file name for downloaded PDFs can be generated from your view template by setting the @filename header entry.

From CollectiveAccess Version 1.7.6, your template view can also specify the file name for the downloaded PDF by setting the “filename” view variable. Because this value is set using PHP code it can be set dynamically based upon report parameters, user settings or anything else you can access. View variables are set using the view’s setVar() method with the variable name (“filename”) and the desired filename:

<?php print $this->setVar('filename', 'my_custom_report_file.pdf'); ?>

If you don’t set a file name a default name will be used.

Displaying Barcodes

Bar codes may be output in any view using the PHP caGenerateBarcode() helper function. Simply pass it the value to be encoded and an array of options that include the type of barcode and size of the code and a path to a PNG file displaying the bar code is returned. You can then construct and <img> tag within the view or do other processing. It is your responsibility to remove the generated PNG file, any of which will be in the system tmp directory, when you are done.

For example:

<?php $vs_path = caGenerateBarcode('$ps_identifier, array('checkValues' => $this->opa_check_values, 'type' => 'code128', 'height' => 12)); print "<img src='".$vs_path."'/>"; ?>

For views that support curly-brace syntax, you may also pass a special barcode template in the format barcode:<type>:{size}:template. For example:


Supported Bar Code Formats

Type Code


Example Values



A high-density barcode symbology. It is used for alphanumeric or numeric-only barcodes. It can encode all 128 characters of ASCII and, by use of an extension character (FNC4), the Latin-1 characters defined in ISO/IEC 8859-1.


Size is height in pixels. Width will be set as required.


Also known as Alpha39, Code 3 of 9, Code 3/9, Type 39, USS Code 39, or USD-3. A variable length, discrete barcode symbology supporting 43 characters, including numbers, upper-case letters and a handful of punctuation.


Size is height in pixels. Width will be set as required.


QR code (abbreviated from Quick Response Code) is the trademark for a type of matrix barcode (or two-dimensional barcode) first designed for the automotive industry in Japan. A barcode is a machine-readable optical label that contains information about the item to which it is attached. A QR code uses four standardized encoding modes (numeric, alphanumeric, byte / binary, and kanji) to efficiently store data; extensions may also be used.


Size is a pixel size multiplier and should be set to a value between 1 and 8, with larger values corresponding to larger QRCode output.


POSTNET (Postal Numeric Encoding Technique) is a barcode symbology used by the United States Postal Service to assist in directing mail. The ZIP Code or ZIP+4 code is encoded in half- and full-height bars.[1] Most often, the delivery point is added, usually being the last two digits of the address or PO box number.


Size is ignored. Both height and width will be set as necessary.

Rendering Engines

Conversion of HTML generated by templates to PDF is performed by a rendering engine installed on the server. There are several choices to select from.

CollectiveAccess comes with plugins that allow the software to use three of the most common rendering engines. Support for other engines can be added by coding additional plugins.

Currently supported rendering engines include:






A rendering engine implemented entirely in PHP. Its main advantage is that it requires no additional installation or special software. If CA can run then domPDF will be available. Primary downsides are performance and render quality, both of which can be unacceptably terrible as your output grows in size and/or complexity. Rendering times for domPDF often grow exponentially with respect to document size, making long document output (dozens of pages) potentially problematic.



The WebKit rendering engine that drives the Chrome and Safari web browsers packaged as a server-side HTML/CSS to PDF converter. Advantages are speed and render quality. It is generally 2-100 times faster than domPDF and can handle more complex documents accurately. Downsides are the need to install wkhtmltopdf software on your server, the lack of support for it on most shared servers and incompatibility of some versions with CA (see notes).


Scaling of output in the current version, 0.12.2, is broken resulting in output that cannot be accurately printed. Use version 0.12.1 instead.


Another WebKit-based HTML/CSS to PDF converter. It has the same installation, performance and quality advantages and disadvantages over domPDF as wkhtmltopdf. NOTE: This engine is deprecated and no longer actively supported. PhantomJS code will be stripped from version 1.8


If using a non-domPDF renderer, be sure that the path to the command-line render application is set properly in external_applications.conf. Selection of the renderer is automatic, with wkhtmltopdf or PhantomJS if present used in preference to domPDF.

Testing Labels

When testing your label layouts, setting the add_print_label_borders directive in app.conf to a non-zero value will cause outlines to display on the borders of all printed labels.