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XML

In the archonship of Aristaechmus, Draco enacted his ordinances.
Aristotle

 

Diving In

Most of the chapters in this book have centered around a piece of sample code. But XML isn’t about code; it’s about data. One common use of XML is “syndication feeds” that list the latest articles on a blog, forum, or other frequently-updated website. Most popular blogging software can produce a feed and update it whenever new articles, discussion threads, or blog posts are published. You can follow a blog by “subscribing” to its feed, and you can follow multiple blogs with a dedicated “feed aggregator” like Google Reader.

Here, then, is the XML data we’ll be working with in this chapter. It’s a feed — specifically, an Atom syndication feed.

[download feed.xml]

<?xml version='1.0' encoding='utf-8'?>
<feed xmlns='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom' xml:lang='en'>
  <title>dive into mark</title>
  <subtitle>currently between addictions</subtitle>
  <id>tag:diveintomark.org,2001-07-29:/</id>
  <updated>2009-03-27T21:56:07Z</updated>
  <link rel='alternate' type='text/html' href='http://diveintomark.org/'/>
  <link rel='self' type='application/atom+xml' href='http://diveintomark.org/feed/'/>
  <entry>
    <author>
      <name>Mark</name>
      <uri>http://diveintomark.org/</uri>
    </author>
    <title>Dive into history, 2009 edition</title>
    <link rel='alternate' type='text/html'
      href='http://diveintomark.org/archives/2009/03/27/dive-into-history-2009-edition'/>
    <id>tag:diveintomark.org,2009-03-27:/archives/20090327172042</id>
    <updated>2009-03-27T21:56:07Z</updated>
    <published>2009-03-27T17:20:42Z</published>
    <category scheme='http://diveintomark.org' term='diveintopython'/>
    <category scheme='http://diveintomark.org' term='docbook'/>
    <category scheme='http://diveintomark.org' term='html'/>
  <summary type='html'>Putting an entire chapter on one page sounds
    bloated, but consider this &amp;mdash; my longest chapter so far
    would be 75 printed pages, and it loads in under 5 seconds&amp;hellip;
    On dialup.</summary>
  </entry>
  <entry>
    <author>
      <name>Mark</name>
      <uri>http://diveintomark.org/</uri>
    </author>
    <title>Accessibility is a harsh mistress</title>
    <link rel='alternate' type='text/html'
      href='http://diveintomark.org/archives/2009/03/21/accessibility-is-a-harsh-mistress'/>
    <id>tag:diveintomark.org,2009-03-21:/archives/20090321200928</id>
    <updated>2009-03-22T01:05:37Z</updated>
    <published>2009-03-21T20:09:28Z</published>
    <category scheme='http://diveintomark.org' term='accessibility'/>
    <summary type='html'>The accessibility orthodoxy does not permit people to
      question the value of features that are rarely useful and rarely used.</summary>
  </entry>
  <entry>
    <author>
      <name>Mark</name>
    </author>
    <title>A gentle introduction to video encoding, part 1: container formats</title>
    <link rel='alternate' type='text/html'
      href='http://diveintomark.org/archives/2008/12/18/give-part-1-container-formats'/>
    <id>tag:diveintomark.org,2008-12-18:/archives/20081218155422</id>
    <updated>2009-01-11T19:39:22Z</updated>
    <published>2008-12-18T15:54:22Z</published>
    <category scheme='http://diveintomark.org' term='asf'/>
    <category scheme='http://diveintomark.org' term='avi'/>
    <category scheme='http://diveintomark.org' term='encoding'/>
    <category scheme='http://diveintomark.org' term='flv'/>
    <category scheme='http://diveintomark.org' term='GIVE'/>
    <category scheme='http://diveintomark.org' term='mp4'/>
    <category scheme='http://diveintomark.org' term='ogg'/>
    <category scheme='http://diveintomark.org' term='video'/>
    <summary type='html'>These notes will eventually become part of a
      tech talk on video encoding.</summary>
  </entry>
</feed>

A 5-Minute Crash Course in XML

If you already know about XML, you can skip this section.

XML is a generalized way of describing hierarchical structured data. An XML document contains one or more elements, which are delimited by start and end tags. This is a complete (albeit boring) XML document:

<foo>   
</foo>  
  1. This is the start tag of the foo element.
  2. This is the matching end tag of the foo element. Like balancing parentheses in writing or mathematics or code, every start tag must be closed (matched) by a corresponding end tag.

Elements can be nested to any depth. An element bar inside an element foo is said to be a subelement or child of foo.

<foo>
  <bar></bar>
</foo>

The first element in every XML document is called the root element. An XML document can only have one root element. The following is not an XML document, because it has two root elements:

<foo></foo>
<bar></bar>

Elements can have attributes, which are name-value pairs. Attributes are listed within the start tag of an element and separated by whitespace. Attribute names can not be repeated within an element. Attribute values must be quoted. You may use either single or double quotes.

<foo lang='en'>                          
  <bar id='papayawhip' lang="fr"></bar>  
</foo>
  1. The foo element has one attribute, named lang. The value of its lang attribute is en.
  2. The bar element has two attributes, named id and lang. The value of its lang attribute is fr. This doesn’t conflict with the foo element in any way. Each element has its own set of attributes.

If an element has more than one attribute, the ordering of the attributes is not significant. An element’s attributes form an unordered set of keys and values, like a Python dictionary. There is no limit to the number of attributes you can define on each element.

Elements can have text content.

<foo lang='en'>
  <bar lang='fr'>PapayaWhip</bar>
</foo>

Elements that contain no text and no children are empty.

<foo></foo>

There is a shorthand for writing empty elements. By putting a / character in the start tag, you can skip the end tag altogther. The XML document in the previous example could be written like this instead:

<foo/>

Like Python functions can be declared in different modules, XML elements can be declared in different namespaces. Namespaces usually look like URLs. You use an xmlns declaration to define a default namespace. A namespace declaration looks similar to an attribute, but it has a different purpose.

<feed xmlns='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom'>  
  <title>dive into mark</title>             
</feed>
  1. The feed element is in the http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom namespace.
  2. The title element is also in the http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom namespace. The namespace declaration affects the element where it’s declared, plus all child elements.

You can also use an xmlns:prefix declaration to define a namespace and associate it with a prefix. Then each element in that namespace must be explicitly declared with the prefix.

<atom:feed xmlns:atom='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom'>  
  <atom:title>dive into mark</atom:title>             
</atom:feed>
  1. The feed element is in the http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom namespace.
  2. The title element is also in the http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom namespace.

As far as an XML parser is concerned, the previous two XML documents are identical. Namespace + element name = XML identity. Prefixes only exist to refer to namespaces, so the actual prefix name (atom:) is irrelevant. The namespaces match, the element names match, the attributes (or lack of attributes) match, and each element’s text content matches, therefore the XML documents are the same.

Finally, XML documents can contain character encoding information on the first line, before the root element. (If you’re curious how a document can contain information which needs to be known before the document can be parsed, Section F of the XML specification details how to resolve this Catch-22.)

<?xml version='1.0' encoding='utf-8'?>

And now you know just enough XML to be dangerous!

The Structure Of An Atom Feed

Think of a weblog, or in fact any website with frequently updated content, like CNN.com. The site itself has a title (“CNN.com”), a subtitle (“Breaking News, U.S., World, Weather, Entertainment & Video News”), a last-updated date (“updated 12:43 p.m. EDT, Sat May 16, 2009”), and a list of articles posted at different times. Each article also has a title, a first-published date (and maybe also a last-updated date, if they published a correction or fixed a typo), and a unique URL.

The Atom syndication format is designed to capture all of this information in a standard format. My weblog and CNN.com are wildly different in design, scope, and audience, but they both have the same basic structure. CNN.com has a title; my blog has a title. CNN.com publishes articles; I publish articles.

At the top level is the root element, which every Atom feed shares: the feed element in the http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom namespace.

<feed xmlns='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom'  
      xml:lang='en'>                       
  1. http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom is the Atom namespace.
  2. Any element can contain an xml:lang attribute, which declares the language of the element and its children. In this case, the xml:lang attribute is declared once on the root element, which means the entire feed is in English.

An Atom feed contains several pieces of information about the feed itself. These are declared as children of the root-level feed element.

<feed xmlns='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom' xml:lang='en'>
  <title>dive into mark</title>                                             
  <subtitle>currently between addictions</subtitle>                         
  <id>tag:diveintomark.org,2001-07-29:/</id>                                
  <updated>2009-03-27T21:56:07Z</updated>                                   
  <link rel='alternate' type='text/html' href='http://diveintomark.org/'/>  
  1. The title of this feed is dive into mark.
  2. The subtitle of this feed is currently between addictions.
  3. Every feed needs a globally unique identifier. See RFC 4151 for how to create one.
  4. This feed was last updated on March 27, 2009, at 21:56 GMT. This is usually equivalent to the last-modified date of the most recent article.
  5. Now things start to get interesting. This link element has no text content, but it has three attributes: rel, type, and href. The rel value tells you what kind of link this is; rel='alternate' means that this is a link to an alternate representation of this feed. The type='text/html' attribute means that this is a link to an HTML page. And the link target is given in the href attribute.

Now we know that this is a feed for a site named “dive into mark“ which is available at http://diveintomark.org/ and was last updated on March 27, 2009.

Although the order of elements can be relevant in some XML documents, it is not relevant in an Atom feed.

After the feed-level metadata is the list of the most recent articles. An article looks like this:

<entry>
  <author>                                                                 
    <name>Mark</name>
    <uri>http://diveintomark.org/</uri>
  </author>
  <title>Dive into history, 2009 edition</title>                           
  <link rel='alternate' type='text/html'                                   
    href='http://diveintomark.org/archives/2009/03/27/dive-into-history-2009-edition'/>
  <id>tag:diveintomark.org,2009-03-27:/archives/20090327172042</id>        
  <updated>2009-03-27T21:56:07Z</updated>                                  
  <published>2009-03-27T17:20:42Z</published>        
  <category scheme='http://diveintomark.org' term='diveintopython'/>       
  <category scheme='http://diveintomark.org' term='docbook'/>
  <category scheme='http://diveintomark.org' term='html'/>
  <summary type='html'>Putting an entire chapter on one page sounds        
    bloated, but consider this &amp;mdash; my longest chapter so far
    would be 75 printed pages, and it loads in under 5 seconds&amp;hellip;
    On dialup.</summary>
</entry>                                                                   
  1. The author element tells who wrote this article: some guy named Mark, whom you can find loafing at http://diveintomark.org/. (This is the same as the alternate link in the feed metadata, but it doesn’t have to be. Many weblogs have multiple authors, each with their own personal website.)
  2. The title element gives the title of the article, “Dive into history, 2009 edition”.
  3. As with the feed-level alternate link, this link element gives the address of the HTML version of this article.
  4. Entries, like feeds, need a unique identifier.
  5. Entries have two dates: a first-published date (published) and a last-modified date (updated).
  6. Entries can have an arbitrary number of categories. This article is filed under diveintopython, docbook, and html.
  7. The summary element gives a brief summary of the article. (There is also a content element, not shown here, if you want to include the complete article text in your feed.) This summary element has the Atom-specific type='html' attribute, which specifies that this summary is a snippet of HTML, not plain text. This is important, since it has HTML-specific entities in it (&mdash; and &hellip;) which should be rendered as “—” and “…” rather than displayed directly.
  8. Finally, the end tag for the entry element, signaling the end of the metadata for this article.

Parsing XML

Python can parse XML documents in several ways. It has traditional DOM and SAX parsers, but I will focus on a different library called ElementTree.

[download feed.xml]

>>> import xml.etree.ElementTree as etree    
>>> tree = etree.parse('examples/feed.xml')  
>>> root = tree.getroot()                    
>>> root                                     
<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}feed at cd1eb0>
  1. The ElementTree library is part of the Python standard library, in xml.etree.ElementTree.
  2. The primary entry point for the ElementTree library is the parse() function, which can take a filename or a file-like object. This function parses the entire document at once. If memory is tight, there are ways to parse an XML document incrementally instead.
  3. The parse() function returns an object which represents the entire document. This is not the root element. To get a reference to the root element, call the getroot() method.
  4. As expected, the root element is the feed element in the http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom namespace. The string representation of this object reinforces an important point: an XML element is a combination of its namespace and its tag name (also called the local name). Every element in this document is in the Atom namespace, so the root element is represented as {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}feed.

ElementTree represents XML elements as {namespace}localname. You’ll see and use this format in multiple places in the ElementTree API.

Elements Are Lists

In the ElementTree API, an element acts like a list. The items of the list are the element’s children.

# continued from the previous example
>>> root.tag                        
'{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}feed'
>>> len(root)                       
8
>>> for child in root:              
...   print(child)                  
... 
<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}title at e2b5d0>
<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}subtitle at e2b4e0>
<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}id at e2b6c0>
<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}updated at e2b6f0>
<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}link at e2b4b0>
<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry at e2b720>
<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry at e2b510>
<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry at e2b750>
  1. Continuing from the previous example, the root element is {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}feed.
  2. The “length” of the root element is the number of child elements.
  3. You can use the element itself as an iterator to loop through all of its child elements.
  4. As you can see from the output, there are indeed 8 child elements: all of the feed-level metadata (title, subtitle, id, updated, and link) followed by the three entry elements.

You may have guessed this already, but I want to point it out explicitly: the list of child elements only includes direct children. Each of the entry elements contain their own children, but those are not included in the list. They would be included in the list of each entry’s children, but they are not included in the list of the feed’s children. There are ways to find elements no matter how deeply nested they are; we’ll look at two such ways later in this chapter.

Attributes Are Dictonaries

XML isn’t just a collection of elements; each element can also have its own set of attributes. Once you have a reference to a specific element, you can easily get its attributes as a Python dictionary.

# continuing from the previous example
>>> root.attrib                           
{'{http://www.w3.org/XML/1998/namespace}lang': 'en'}
>>> root[4]                               
<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}link at e181b0>
>>> root[4].attrib                        
{'href': 'http://diveintomark.org/',
 'type': 'text/html',
 'rel': 'alternate'}
>>> root[3]                               
<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}updated at e2b4e0>
>>> root[3].attrib                        
{}
  1. The attrib property is a dictionary of the element’s attributes. The original markup here was <feed xmlns='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom' xml:lang='en'>. The xml: prefix refers to a built-in namespace that every XML document can use without declaring it.
  2. The fifth child — [4] in a 0-based list — is the link element.
  3. The link element has three attributes: href, type, and rel.
  4. The fourth child — [3] in a 0-based list — is the updated element.
  5. The updated element has no attributes, so its .attrib is just an empty dictionary.

Searching For Nodes Within An XML Document

So far, we’ve worked with this XML document “from the top down,” starting with the root element, getting its child elements, and so on throughout the document. But many uses of XML require you to find specific elements. Etree can do that, too.

>>> import xml.etree.ElementTree as etree
>>> tree = etree.parse('examples/feed.xml')
>>> root = tree.getroot()
>>> root.findall('{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry')    
[<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry at e2b4e0>,
 <Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry at e2b510>,
 <Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry at e2b540>]
>>> root.tag
'{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}feed'
>>> root.findall('{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}feed')     
[]
>>> root.findall('{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}author')   
[]
  1. The findall() method finds child elements that match a specific query. (More on the query format in a minute.)
  2. Each element — including the root element, but also child elements — has a findall() method. It finds all matching elements among the element’s children. But why aren’t there any results? Although it may not be obvious, this particular query only searches the element’s children. Since the root feed element has no child named feed, this query returns an empty list.
  3. This result may also surprise you. There is an author element in this document; in fact, there are three (one in each entry). But those author elements are not direct children of the root element; they are “grandchildren” (literally, a child element of a child element). If you want to look for author elements at any nesting level, you can do that, but the query format is slightly different.
>>> tree.findall('{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry')    
[<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry at e2b4e0>,
 <Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry at e2b510>,
 <Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry at e2b540>]
>>> tree.findall('{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}author')   
[]
  1. For convenience, the tree object (returned from the etree.parse() function) has several methods that mirror the methods on the root element. The results are the same as if you had called the tree.getroot().findall() method.
  2. Perhaps surprisingly, this query does not find the author elements in this document. Why not? Because this is just a shortcut for tree.getroot().findall('{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}author'), which means “find all the author elements that are children of the root element.” The author elements are not children of the root element; they’re children of the entry elements. Thus the query doesn’t return any matches.

There is also a find() method which returns the first matching element. This is useful for situations where you are only expecting one match, or if there are multiple matches, you only care about the first one.

>>> entries = tree.findall('{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry')           
>>> len(entries)
3
>>> title_element = entries[0].find('{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}title')  
>>> title_element.text
'Dive into history, 2009 edition'
>>> foo_element = entries[0].find('{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}foo')      
>>> foo_element
>>> type(foo_element)
<class 'NoneType'>
  1. You saw this in the previous example. It finds all the atom:entry elements.
  2. The find() method takes an ElementTree query and returns the first matching element.
  3. There are no elements in this entry named foo, so this returns None.

There is a “gotcha” with the find() method that will eventually bite you. In a boolean context, ElementTree element objects will evaluate to False if they contain no children (i.e. if len(element) is 0). This means that if element.find('...') is not testing whether the find() method found a matching element; it’s testing whether that matching element has any child elements! To test whether the find() method returned an element, use if element.find('...') is not None.

There is a way to search for descendant elements, i.e. children, grandchildren, and any element at any nesting level.

>>> all_links = tree.findall('//{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}link')  
>>> all_links
[<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}link at e181b0>,
 <Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}link at e2b570>,
 <Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}link at e2b480>,
 <Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}link at e2b5a0>]
>>> all_links[0].attrib                                              
{'href': 'http://diveintomark.org/',
 'type': 'text/html',
 'rel': 'alternate'}
>>> all_links[1].attrib                                              
{'href': 'http://diveintomark.org/archives/2009/03/27/dive-into-history-2009-edition',
 'type': 'text/html',
 'rel': 'alternate'}
>>> all_links[2].attrib
{'href': 'http://diveintomark.org/archives/2009/03/21/accessibility-is-a-harsh-mistress',
 'type': 'text/html',
 'rel': 'alternate'}
>>> all_links[3].attrib
{'href': 'http://diveintomark.org/archives/2008/12/18/give-part-1-container-formats',
 'type': 'text/html',
 'rel': 'alternate'}
  1. This query — //{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}link — is very similar to the previous examples, except for the two slashes at the beginning of the query. Those two slashes mean “don’t just look for direct children; I want any elements, regardless of nesting level.” So the result is a list of four link elements, not just one.
  2. The first result is a direct child of the root element. As you can see from its attributes, this is the feed-level alternate link that points to the HTML version of the website that the feed describes.
  3. The other three results are each entry-level alternate links. Each entry has a single link child element, and because of the double slash at the beginning of the query, this query finds all of them.

Overall, ElementTree’s findall() method is a very powerful feature, but the query language can be a bit surprising. It is officially described as “limited support for XPath expressions.” XPath is a W3C standard for querying XML documents. ElementTree’s query language is similar enough to XPath to do basic searching, but dissimilar enough that it may annoy you if you already know XPath. Now let’s look at a third-party XML library that extends the ElementTree API with full XPath support.

Going Further With lxml

lxml is an open source third-party library that builds on the popular libxml2 parser. It provides a 100% compatible ElementTree API, then extends it with full XPath 1.0 support and a few other niceties. There are installers available for Windows; Linux users should always try to use distribution-specific tools like yum or apt-get to install precompiled binaries from their repositories. Otherwise you’ll need to install lxml manually.

>>> from lxml import etree                   
>>> tree = etree.parse('examples/feed.xml')  
>>> root = tree.getroot()                    
>>> root.findall('{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry')  
[<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry at e2b4e0>,
 <Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry at e2b510>,
 <Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry at e2b540>]
  1. Once imported, lxml provides the same API as the built-in ElementTree library.
  2. parse() function: same as ElementTree.
  3. getroot() method: also the same.
  4. findall() method: exactly the same.

For large XML documents, lxml is significantly faster than the built-in ElementTree library. If you’re only using the ElementTree API and want to use the fastest available implementation, you can try to import lxml and fall back to the built-in ElementTree.

try:
    from lxml import etree
except ImportError:
    import xml.etree.ElementTree as etree

But lxml is more than just a faster ElementTree. Its findall() method includes support for more complicated expressions.

>>> import lxml.etree                                                                   
>>> tree = lxml.etree.parse('examples/feed.xml')
>>> tree.findall('//{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}*[@href]')                             
[<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}link at eeb8a0>,
 <Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}link at eeb990>,
 <Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}link at eeb960>,
 <Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}link at eeb9c0>]
>>> tree.findall("//{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}*[@href='http://diveintomark.org/']")  
[<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}link at eeb930>]
>>> NS = '{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}'
>>> tree.findall('//{NS}author[{NS}uri]'.format(NS=NS))                                 
[<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}author at eeba80>,
 <Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}author at eebba0>]
  1. In this example, I’m going to import lxml.etree (instead of, say, from lxml import etree), to emphasize that these features are specific to lxml.
  2. This query finds all elements in the Atom namespace, anywhere in the document, that have an href attribute. The // at the beginning of the query means “elements anywhere (not just as children of the root element).” {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom} means “only elements in the Atom namespace.” * means “elements with any local name.” And [@href] means “has an href attribute.”
  3. The query finds all Atom elements with an href whose value is http://diveintomark.org/.
  4. After doing some quick string formatting (because otherwise these compound queries get ridiculously long), this query searches for Atom author elements that have an Atom uri element as a child. This only returns two author elements, the ones in the first and second entry. The author in the last entry contains only a name, not a uri.

Not enough for you? lxml also integrates support for arbitrary XPath 1.0 expressions. I’m not going to go into depth about XPath syntax; that could be a whole book unto itself! But I will show you how it integrates into lxml.

>>> import lxml.etree
>>> tree = lxml.etree.parse('examples/feed.xml')
>>> NSMAP = {'atom': 'http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom'}                    
>>> entries = tree.xpath("//atom:category[@term='accessibility']/..",  
...     namespaces=NSMAP)
>>> entries                                                            
[<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}entry at e2b630>]
>>> entry = entries[0]
>>> entry.xpath('./atom:title/text()', namespaces=NSMAP)               
['Accessibility is a harsh mistress']
  1. To perform XPath queries on namespaced elements, you need to define a namespace prefix mapping. This is just a Python dictionary.
  2. Here is an XPath query. The XPath expression searches for category elements (in the Atom namespace) that contain a term attribute with the value accessibility. But that’s not actually the query result. Look at the very end of the query string; did you notice the /.. bit? That means “and then return the parent element of the category element you just found.” So this single XPath query will find all entries with a child element of <category term='accessibility'>.
  3. The xpath() function returns a list of ElementTree objects. In this document, there is only one entry with a category whose term is accessibility.
  4. XPath expressions don’t always return a list of elements. Technically, the DOM of a parsed XML document doesn’t contain elements; it contains nodes. Depending on their type, nodes can be elements, attributes, or even text content. The result of an XPath query is a list of nodes. This query returns a list of text nodes: the text content (text()) of the title element (atom:title) that is a child of the current element (./).

Generating XML

Python’s support for XML is not limited to parsing existing documents. You can also create XML documents from scratch.

>>> import xml.etree.ElementTree as etree
>>> new_feed = etree.Element('{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}feed',     
...     attrib={'{http://www.w3.org/XML/1998/namespace}lang': 'en'})  
>>> print(etree.tostring(new_feed))                                   
<ns0:feed xmlns:ns0='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom' xml:lang='en'/>
  1. To create a new element, instantiate the Element class. You pass the element name (namespace + local name) as the first argument. This statement creates a feed element in the Atom namespace. This will be our new document’s root element.
  2. To add attributes to the newly created element, pass a dictionary of attribute names and values in the attrib argument. Note that the attribute name should be in the standard ElementTree format, {namespace}localname.
  3. At any time, you can serialize any element (and its children) with the ElementTree tostring() function.

Was that serialization surprising to you? The way ElementTree serializes namespaced XML elements is technically accurate but not optimal. The sample XML document at the beginning of this chapter defined a default namespace (xmlns='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom'). Defining a default namespace is useful for documents — like Atom feeds — where every element is in the same namespace, because you can declare the namespace once and declare each element with just its local name (<feed>, <link>, <entry>). There is no need to use any prefixes unless you want to declare elements from another namespace.

An XML parser won’t “see” any difference between an XML document with a default namespace and an XML document with a prefixed namespace. The resulting DOM of this serialization:

<ns0:feed xmlns:ns0='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom' xml:lang='en'/>

is identical to the DOM of this serialization:

<feed xmlns='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom' xml:lang='en'/>

The only practical difference is that the second serialization is several characters shorter. If we were to recast our entire sample feed with a ns0: prefix in every start and end tag, it would add 4 characters per start tag × 79 tags + 4 characters for the namespace declaration itself, for a total of 320 characters. Assuming UTF-8 encoding, that’s 320 extra bytes. (After gzipping, the difference drops to 21 bytes, but still, 21 bytes is 21 bytes.) Maybe that doesn’t matter to you, but for something like an Atom feed, which may be downloaded several thousand times whenever it changes, saving a few bytes per request can quickly add up.

The built-in ElementTree library does not offer this fine-grained control over serializing namespaced elements, but lxml does.

>>> import lxml.etree
>>> NSMAP = {None: 'http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom'}                     
>>> new_feed = lxml.etree.Element('feed', nsmap=NSMAP)                
>>> print(lxml.etree.tounicode(new_feed))                             
<feed xmlns='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom'/>
>>> new_feed.set('{http://www.w3.org/XML/1998/namespace}lang', 'en')  
>>> print(lxml.etree.tounicode(new_feed))
<feed xmlns='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom' xml:lang='en'/>
  1. To start, define a namespace mapping as a dictionary. Dictionary values are namespaces; dictionary keys are the desired prefix. Using None as a prefix effectively declares a default namespace.
  2. Now you can pass the lxml-specific nsmap argument when you create an element, and lxml will respect the namespace prefixes you’ve defined.
  3. As expected, this serialization defines the Atom namespace as the default namespace and declares the feed element without a namespace prefix.
  4. Oops, we forgot to add the xml:lang attribute. You can always add attributes to any element with the set() method. It takes two arguments: the attribute name in standard ElementTree format, then the attribute value. (This method is not lxml-specific. The only lxml-specific part of this example was the nsmap argument to control the namespace prefixes in the serialized output.)

Are XML documents limited to one element per document? No, of course not. You can easily create child elements, too.

>>> title = lxml.etree.SubElement(new_feed, 'title',          
...     attrib={'type':'html'})                               
>>> print(lxml.etree.tounicode(new_feed))
<feed xmlns='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom' xml:lang='en'><title type='html'/></feed>
>>> title.text = 'dive into &hellip;'                         
>>> print(lxml.etree.tounicode(new_feed))                     
<feed xmlns='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom' xml:lang='en'><title type='html'>dive into &amp;hellip;</title></feed>
>>> print(lxml.etree.tounicode(new_feed, pretty_print=True))  
<feed xmlns='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom' xml:lang='en'>
<title type='html'>dive into&amp;hellip;</title>
</feed>
  1. To create a child element of an existing element, instantiate the SubElement class. The only required arguments are the parent element (new_feed in this case) and the new element’s name. Since this child element will inherit the namespace mapping of its parent, there is no need to redeclare the namespace or prefix here.
  2. You can also pass in an attribute dictionary. Keys are attribute names; values are attribute values.
  3. As expected, the new title element was created in the Atom namespace, and it was inserted as a child of the feed element. Since the title element has no text content and no children of its own, lxml serializes it as an empty element (with the /> shortcut).
  4. To set the text content of an element, simply set its .text property.
  5. Now the title element is serialized with its text content. Any text content that contains less-than signs or ampersands needs to be escaped when serialized. lxml handles this escaping automatically.
  6. You can also apply “pretty printing” to the serialization, which inserts line breaks after end tags, and after start tags of elements that contain child elements but no text content. In technical terms, lxml adds “insignificant whitespace” to make the output more readable.

You might also want to check out xmlwitch, another third-party library for generating XML. It makes extensive use of the with statement to make XML generation code more readable.

Parsing Broken XML

The XML specification mandates that all conforming XML parsers employ “draconian error handling.” That is, they must halt and catch fire as soon as they detect any sort of wellformedness error in the XML document. Wellformedness errors include mismatched start and end tags, undefined entities, illegal Unicode characters, and a number of other esoteric rules. This is in stark contrast to other common formats like HTML — your browser doesn’t stop rendering a web page if you forget to close an HTML tag or escape an ampersand in an attribute value. (It is a common misconception that HTML has no defined error handling. HTML error handling is actually quite well-defined, but it’s significantly more complicated than “halt and catch fire on first error.”)

Some people (myself included) believe that it was a mistake for the inventors of XML to mandate draconian error handling. Don’t get me wrong; I can certainly see the allure of simplifying the error handling rules. But in practice, the concept of “wellformedness” is trickier than it sounds, especially for XML documents (like Atom feeds) that are published on the web and served over HTTP. Despite the maturity of XML, which standardized on draconian error handling in 1997, surveys continually show a significant fraction of Atom feeds on the web are plagued with wellformedness errors.

So, I have both theoretical and practical reasons to parse XML documents “at any cost,” that is, not to halt and catch fire at the first wellformedness error. If you find yourself wanting to do this too, lxml can help.

Here is a fragment of a broken XML document. I’ve highlighted the wellformedness error.

<?xml version='1.0' encoding='utf-8'?>
<feed xmlns='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom' xml:lang='en'>
  <title>dive into &hellip;</title>
...
</feed>

That’s an error, because the &hellip; entity is not defined in XML. (It is defined in HTML.) If you try to parse this broken feed with the default settings, lxml will choke on the undefined entity.

>>> import lxml.etree
>>> tree = lxml.etree.parse('examples/feed-broken.xml')
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
  File "lxml.etree.pyx", line 2693, in lxml.etree.parse (src/lxml/lxml.etree.c:52591)
  File "parser.pxi", line 1478, in lxml.etree._parseDocument (src/lxml/lxml.etree.c:75665)
  File "parser.pxi", line 1507, in lxml.etree._parseDocumentFromURL (src/lxml/lxml.etree.c:75993)
  File "parser.pxi", line 1407, in lxml.etree._parseDocFromFile (src/lxml/lxml.etree.c:75002)
  File "parser.pxi", line 965, in lxml.etree._BaseParser._parseDocFromFile (src/lxml/lxml.etree.c:72023)
  File "parser.pxi", line 539, in lxml.etree._ParserContext._handleParseResultDoc (src/lxml/lxml.etree.c:67830)
  File "parser.pxi", line 625, in lxml.etree._handleParseResult (src/lxml/lxml.etree.c:68877)
  File "parser.pxi", line 565, in lxml.etree._raiseParseError (src/lxml/lxml.etree.c:68125)
lxml.etree.XMLSyntaxError: Entity 'hellip' not defined, line 3, column 28

To parse this broken XML document, despite its wellformedness error, you need to create a custom XML parser.

>>> parser = lxml.etree.XMLParser(recover=True)                  
>>> tree = lxml.etree.parse('examples/feed-broken.xml', parser)  
>>> parser.error_log                                             
examples/feed-broken.xml:3:28:FATAL:PARSER:ERR_UNDECLARED_ENTITY: Entity 'hellip' not defined
>>> tree.findall('{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}title')
[<Element {http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}title at ead510>]
>>> title = tree.findall('{http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom}title')[0]
>>> title.text                                                   
'dive into '
>>> print(lxml.etree.tounicode(tree.getroot()))                  
<feed xmlns='http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom' xml:lang='en'>
  <title>dive into </title>
.
. [rest of serialization snipped for brevity]
.
  1. To create a custom parser, instantiate the lxml.etree.XMLParser class. It can take a number of different named arguments. The one we’re interested in here is the recover argument. When set to True, the XML parser will try its best to “recover” from wellformedness errors.
  2. To parse an XML document with your custom parser, pass the parser object as the second argument to the parse() function. Note that lxml does not raise an exception about the undefined &hellip; entity.
  3. The parser keeps a log of the wellformedness errors that it has encountered. (This is actually true regardless of whether it is set to recover from those errors or not.)
  4. Since it didn’t know what to do with the undefined &hellip; entity, the parser just silently dropped it. The text content of the title element becomes 'dive into '.
  5. As you can see from the serialization, the &hellip; entity didn’t get moved; it was simply dropped.

It is important to reiterate that there is no guarantee of interoperability with “recovering” XML parsers. A different parser might decide that it recognized the &hellip; entity from HTML, and replace it with &amp;hellip; instead. Is that “better”? Maybe. Is it “more correct”? No, they are both equally incorrect. The correct behavior (according to the XML specification) is to halt and catch fire. If you’ve decided not to do that, you’re on your own.

Further Reading

© 2001–9 Mark Pilgrim