Charming Python #2

A Closer Look at Python's xml.dom Module

David Mertz, Ph.D.
President, Gnosis Software, Inc.
May 2000

This article examines in greater detail the use of the high-level xml.dom module for Python discussed in Charming Python #1. Working with xml.dom is illustrated by means of clarifying code samples and explanations of how to code many of the elements that will go into a complete XML document processing system.

What Is Python? What Is Xml?

Python is a freely available, very-high-level, interpreted language developed by Guido van Rossum. It combines a clear syntax with powerful (but optional) object-oriented semantics. Python is available for almost every computer platform you might find yourself working on, and has strong portability between platforms.

XML is a simplified dialect of the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). Many readers will be most familiar with SGML via one particular document type, HTML. XML documents are similar to HTML in being composed of text interspersed with and structured by markup tags in angle-brackets. But XML encompasses many systems of tags that allow XML documents to be used for many purposes: magazine articles and user documentation, files of structured data (like CSV or EDI files), messages for interprocess communication between programs, architectural diagrams (like CAD formats), and many other purposes. A set of tags can be created to capture any sort of structured information one might want to represent, which is why XML is growing in popularity as a common standard for representing diverse information.


The xml.dom module is probably the most powerful tool available to a Python programmer for working with XML documents. Unfortunately, the documentation provided by the XML-SIG is currently a bit sparse. Some of this gap is filled in by the W3C's language-neutral DOM specification. But it would be nice for Python programmers to have a quick-start guide to the DOM that is specific to the Python language. This article aims to provide such a guide. As with "Charming Python #1," the sample quotations.dtd files are used in some of the samples, and are available with the article code-sample archive.

It is worth getting a sense of exactly what DOM is. The official explanation is a good one.

The Document Object Model is a platform- and language-neutral interface that will allow programs and scripts to dynamically access and update the content, structure and style of documents. The document can be further processed and the results of that processing can be incorporated back into the presented page. (World Wide Web Consortium DOM Working Group)

The way DOM works is by converting an XML document to a tree--or forest--representation. The W3C specification gives as an illustration a DOM version of an HTML table.

DOM Tree

DOM defines a set of methods to traverse, prune, reorganize, output, and manipulate a tree such as this at a level of abstraction higher, and more convenient, than the underlying linearity of an XML document.

Convert Html To Xml

Valid HTML is almost, but not quite, valid XML. The two main differences are that XML tags are case-sensitive, and that all XML tags require an explicit close (as a closing tag, which is optional for some HTML tags; or e.g., <img src="X.png" />). A simple example of using xml.dom is to utilize the HtmlBuilder() class to convert HTML to XML.


"""Convert a valid HTML document to XML
   USAGE: python < infile.html > outfile.xml
import sys
from xml.dom import core
from xml.dom.html_builder import HtmlBuilder

# Construct an HtmlBuilder object and feed the data to it
b = HtmlBuilder()

# Get the newly-constructed document object
doc = b.document

# Output it as XML
print doc.toxml()

The HtmlBuilder() class is kind enough already to implement some of the underlying xml.dom.builder template functionality it inherits, and its source is worth looking at. However, even where we implement template functions ourselves, the outlines of a DOM program will be similar. In the general case, we will build a DOM instance by some means, and then operate on that instance. The .toxml() method of a DOM instance is a simple way to produce a string representation of the DOM instance (in the above case, simply to print it out once generated).

Convert A Python Object To Xml

A Python programmer can achieve a great deal of power and generality by exporting an arbitrary Python object instance as XML. This allows us to handle Python objects in exactly the manner we are accustomed to, with the option of eventually using our instance attributes as tags in the generated XML. With just a few lines (derived from the example) we can convert Python "native" objects to DOM objects, with recursion on those attributes that are contained objects.


"""Build a DOM instance from scratch, write it to XML
   USAGE: python > outfile.xml
import types
from xml.dom import core
from xml.dom.builder import Builder

# Recursive function to build DOM instance from Python instance
def object_convert(builder, inst):
    # Put entire object inside an elem w/ same name as the class.

    for attr in inst.__dict__.keys():
        if attr[0] == '_':      # Skip internal attributes
        value = getattr(inst, attr)
        if type(value) == types.InstanceType:
            # Recursively process subobjects
            object_convert(builder, value)
            # Convert anything else to string, put it in an element


if __name__ == '__main__':
    # Create container classes
    class quotations: pass
    class quotation: pass

    # Create an instance, fill it with hierarchy of attributes
    inst = quotations()
    inst.title = "Quotations file (not quotations.dtd conformant)"
    inst.quot1 = quot1 = quotation()
    quot1.text = """'"is not a quine" is not a quine' is a quine"""
    quot1.source = "Joshua Shagam,"
    inst.quot2 = quot2 = quotation()
    quot2.text = "Python is not a democracy. Voting doesn't help. "+\
                 "Crying may..."
    quot2.source = "Guido van Rossum, comp.lang.python"

    # Create the DOM Builder
    builder = Builder()
    object_convert(builder, inst)
    print builder.document.toxml()

The function object_convert() has a few limitations. For example, it is impossible to produce a quotations.dtd conformant XML document with the above procedure: #PCDATA text cannot be placed directly inside a quotation class, but only within an attribute of the class (such as .text). One simple workaround would be to have object_convert() handle an attribute named, e.g., .PCDATA in a special manner. The conversion to DOM could be made more sophisticated in various ways, but the beauty of the approach is that we can start with entirely "Pythonic" objects, and convert them in a straightforward manner to XML documents.

It is also worth noting that elements at the same level in the produced XML document will not occur in any obvious order. For example, on the author's system, using the particular version of Python he does, the second quotation defined in the source appears first in the output. But this could change between versions and systems. Attributes of Python objects are not inherently ordered to start with, so this behavior makes sense. This behavior is what we want and expect for data relating to a database-system, but is obviously not what we would want for a novel we marked up as XML (unless, perhaps, we wanted an update on William Burroughs' "cut-up" method).

Convert An Xml Document To A Python Object

It is just as easy to generate a Python object out of an XML document as the reverse process was. In many cases, we might well be satisfied with using xml.dom methods. But in other situations, it is nice to use identical techniques with objects generated from XML documents as with all our "generic" Python objects. In the below code, for example, the function pyobj_printer() might have been a function we already used to handle an arbitrary Python object.


"""Read in a DOM instance, convert it to a Python object
from xml.dom.utils import FileReader

class PyObject: pass

def pyobj_printer(py_obj, level=0):
    """Return a "deep" string description of a Python object"""
    from string import join, split
    import types
    descript = ''
    for membname in dir(py_obj):
        member = getattr(py_obj,membname)
        if type(member) == types.InstanceType:
            descript = descript + (' '*level) + '{'+membname+'}\n'
            descript = descript + pyobj_printer(member, level+3)
        elif type(member) == types.ListType:
            descript = descript + (' '*level) + '['+membname+']\n'
            for i in range(len(member)):
                descript = descript+(' '*level)+str(i+1)+': '+ \
            descript = descript + membname+'='
            descript = descript + join(split(str(member)[:50]))+'...\n'
    return descript

def pyobj_from_dom(dom_node):
    """Converts a DOM tree to a "native" Python object"""
    py_obj = PyObject()
    py_obj.PCDATA = ''
    for node in dom_node.get_childNodes():
        if == '#text':
            py_obj.PCDATA = py_obj.PCDATA + node.value
        elif hasattr(py_obj,
            setattr(py_obj,, [pyobj_from_dom(node)])
    return py_obj

# Main test
dom_obj = FileReader("quotes.xml").document
py_obj = pyobj_from_dom(dom_obj)
if __name__ == "__main__":
    print pyobj_printer(py_obj)

The focus here should be on the function pyobj_from_dom(), and specifically on the xml.dom method .get_childNodes() which is where the real work happens. In pyobj_from_dom(), we extract any text directly wrapped by a tag, and put it in the reserved attribute .PCDATA. For any nested tags encountered, we create a new attribute with a name matching the tag, and assign a list to the attribute so we can potentially include multiple occurances of the tag within the parent block. By using a list, of course, we maintain the order in which tags were encountered within the XML document.

Aside from using our old pyobj_printer() generic function (or more likely, something more sophisticated and robust), we can now access elements of py_obj using normal attribute notations, e.g.

Python Interactive Session

>>> from try_dom3 import *
>>> py_obj.quotations[0].quotation[3].source[0].PCDATA
'Guido van Rossum, '

Rearrange A Dom Tree

One of the great virtues of DOM is that it allows a programmer to manipulate an XML document in a non-linear fashion. Each block surrounded by matching open/close tags is simply a "node" in the DOM tree. While the nodes are maintained in a list-like fashion to preserve order information, there is nothing special or immutable about the order. We can easily prune off a node, and graft it back in somewhere else in the DOM tree (even at a different level, if the DTD allows this). Or add new nodes, delete existing nodes, etc.


"""Manipulate the arrangment of nodes in a DOM object
from try_dom3 import *

#-- Var 'doc' will hold the single <quotations> "trunk"
doc = dom_obj.get_childNodes()[0]

#-- Pull off all the nodes into a Python list
# (each node is a <quotation> block, or a whitespace text node)
nodes = []
while 1:
    try: node = doc.removeChild(doc.get_childNodes()[0])
    except: break

#-- Reverse the order of the quotations using a list method
# (we could also perform more complicated operations on the list:
# delete elements, add new ones, sort on complex criteria, etc.)

#-- Fill 'doc' back up with our rearranged nodes
for node in nodes:
    # if second arg is None, insert is to end of list
    doc.insertBefore(node, None)

#-- Output the manipulated DOM
print dom_obj.toxml()

Performing the rearrangement of quotations in the above few lines would have posed a considerable problem if we viewed an XML document as simply a text file, or even if we used a sequential-oriented module like xmllib or xml.sax. With DOM, the problem is not much more difficult than any other operation we might perform on a Python list.


Charming Pytyon #1: An Introduction to XML Tools for Python

The Python Special Interest Group on XML:

The World Wide Web Consortium's DOM page.

The DOM Level 1 Recommendation.

Files used and mentioned in this article:

About The Author

Picture of Author David Mertz has, by this time, been writing software for a couple decades, but has spent that same time generally writing about quite different matters. Roads come together. The main thing that has attracted him to Python is that in comparison to most other programming languages it is both aposiopetic and aphaeretic. You can just write what you mean without the language making extra demands of your fingers. David may be reached at; his life pored over at Suggestions and recommendations on this, past, or future, columns are welcomed.