Select Assemblies Referenced By Projects

Explicit assembly references allows a subset of assemblies to be used for IntelliSense and compiling, while all assemblies are available at run-time. PackageReference and packages.config work differently, and as a result package authors need to take care to create the package to be compatible with both project types.


Explicit assembly references are related to .NET assemblies. It is not a method to distribute native assemblies that are P/Invoked by a managed assembly.

PackageReference support

When a project uses a package with PackageReference and the package contains a ref\<tfm>\ directory, NuGet will classify those assembles as compile-time assets, while the lib\<tfm>\ assemblies are classified as runtime assets. Assemblies in ref\<tfm>\ are not used at runtime. This means it is necessary for any assembly in ref\<tfm>\ to have a matching assembly in either lib\<tfm>\ or a relevant runtime\ directory, otherwise runtime errors will likely occur. Since assemblies in ref\<tfm>\ are not used at runtime, they may be metadata-only assemblies to reduce package size.


If a package contains the nuspec <references> element (used by packages.config, see below) and does not contain assemblies in ref\<tfm>\, NuGet will advertise the assemblies listed in the nuspec <references> element as both the compile and runtime assets. This means there will be runtime exceptions when the referenced assemblies need to load any other assembly in the lib\<tfm>\ directory.


If the package contains a runtime\ directory, NuGet may not use the assets in the lib\ directory.

packages.config support

Projects using packages.config to manage NuGet packages normally add references to all assemblies in the lib\<tfm>\ directory. The ref\ directory was added to support PackageReference and therefore isn't considered when using packages.config. To explicitly set which assemblies are referenced for projects using packages.config, the package must use the <references> element in the nuspec file. For example:

    <group targetFramework="net45">
        <reference file="MyLibrary.dll" />


packages.config project use a process called ResolveAssemblyReference to copy assemblies to the bin\<configuration>\ output directory. Your project's assembly is copied, then the build system looks at the assembly manifest for referenced assemblies, then copies those assemblies and recursively repeats for all assemblies. This means that if any of the assemblies in your lib\<tfm>\ directory are not listed in any other assembly's manifest as a dependency (if the assembly is loaded at runtime using Assembly.Load, MEF or another dependency injection framework), then it may not be copied to your project's bin\<configuration>\ output directory despite being in bin\<tfm>\.


My package will contain three assemblies, MyLib.dll, MyHelpers.dll and MyUtilities.dll, which are targeting the .NET Framework 4.7.2. MyUtilities.dll contains classes intended to be used only by the other two assemblies, so I don't want to make those classes available in IntelliSense or at compile time to projects using my package. My nuspec file needs to contain the following XML elements:

    <group targetFramework="net472">
        <reference file="MyLib.dll" />
        <reference file="MyHelpers.dll" />

and the files in the package will be: