xml4h: XML for Humans in Python

xml4h is an ISC licensed library for Python to make working with XML a human-friendly activity.

This library exists because Python is awesome, XML is everywhere, and combining the two should be a pleasure. With xml4h, it can be.


xml4h is a simplification layer over existing Python XML processing libraries such as lxml and the minidom. It provides:

  • a rich pythonic API to traverse and manipulate the XML DOM.
  • a document builder to simply and safely construct complex documents with minimal code.
  • a writer that serialises XML documents with the structure and format that you expect, unlike the machine- but not human-friendly output you tend to get from other libraries.

The xml4h abstraction layer also offers some other benefits, beyond a nice API and tool set:

  • A common interface to different underlying XML libraries, so code written against xml4h need not be rewritten if you switch implementations.
  • You can easily move between xml4h and the underlying implementation: parse your document using the fastest implementation, manipulate the DOM with human-friendly code using xml4h, then get back to the underlying implementation if you need to.


Install xml4h with pip:

$ pip install xml4h


Here is an example of parsing and reading data from an XML document using “magic” element and attribute lookups:

>>> import xml4h
>>> doc = xml4h.parse('tests/data/monty_python_films.xml')

>>> for film in doc.MontyPythonFilms.Film[:3]:
...     print film['year'], ':', film.Title.text
1971 : And Now for Something Completely Different
1974 : Monty Python and the Holy Grail
1979 : Monty Python's Life of Brian

You can also use a more traditional approach to traverse the DOM:

>>> for film in doc.child('MontyPythonFilms').children('Film')[:3]:
...     print film.attributes['year'], ':', film.children.first.text
1971 : And Now for Something Completely Different
1974 : Monty Python and the Holy Grail
1979 : Monty Python's Life of Brian

The xml4h builder makes programmatic document creation simple, with a method-chaining feature that allows for expressive but sparse code that mirrors the document itself:

>>> b = (xml4h.build('MontyPythonFilms')
...     .attributes({'source': 'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monty_Python'})
...     .element('Film')
...         .attributes({'year': 1971})
...         .element('Title')
...             .text('And Now for Something Completely Different')
...             .up()
...         .elem('Description').t(
...             "A collection of sketches from the first and second TV"
...             " series of Monty Python's Flying Circus purposely"
...             " re-enacted and shot for film.").up()
...         .up()
...     )

>>> # A builder object can be re-used
>>> b = (b.e('Film')
...     .attrs(year=1974)
...     .e('Title').t('Monty Python and the Holy Grail').up()
...     .e('Description').t(
...         "King Arthur and his knights embark on a low-budget search"
...         " for the Holy Grail, encountering humorous obstacles along"
...         " the way. Some of these turned into standalone sketches."
...         ).up()
...     .up()
... )

Pretty-print your XML document with the flexible write() and xml() methods:

>>> b.write_doc(indent=4, newline=True) 
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<MontyPythonFilms source="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monty_Python">
    <Film year="1971">
        <Title>And Now for Something Completely Different</Title>
        <Description>A collection of sketches from ...</Description>
    <Film year="1974">
        <Title>Monty Python and the Holy Grail</Title>
        <Description>King Arthur and his knights embark ...</Description>


Python has three popular libraries for working with XML, none of which are particularly easy to use:

  • xml.dom.minidom is a light-weight, moderately-featured implementation of the W3C DOM that is included in the standard library. Unfortunately the W3C DOM API is terrible – the very opposite of pythonic – and the minidom does not support XPath expressions.
  • xml.etree.ElementTree is a fast hierarchical data container that is included in the standard library and can be used to represent XML, mostly. The API is fairly pythonic and supports XPath, but it lacks some DOM traversal niceties you might expect (e.g. to get an element’s parent) and when using it you often feel like your working with something subtly different from XML, because you are.
  • lxml is a fast, full-featured XML library with an API based on ElementTree but extended. It is your best choice for doing serious work with XML in Python but it is not included in the standard library, it can be difficult to install, and it gives you the same it’s-XML-but-not-quite feeling as its ElementTree forebear.

Given these three options it can be difficult to choose which library to use, especially if you’re new to XML processing in Python and haven’t already used (struggled with) any of them.

In the past your best bet would have been to go with lxml for the most flexibility, even though it might be overkill, because at least then you wouldn’t have to rewrite your code if you later find you need XPath support or powerful DOM traversal methods.

This is where xml4h comes in. It provides an abstraction layer over the existing XML libraries, taking advantage of their power while offering an improved API and tool set.

This project is heavily inspired by the work of Kenneth Reitz such as the excellent Requests HTTP library.

Development Status: αlphα

Currently xml4h includes two adapter implementations that support key XML processing tasks, using either the minidom or lxml‘s ElementTree libraries.

The project is still at the alpha stage, where I am playing with ideas and tweaking the APIs to try and get them right before I build out the feature set.

This project is likely to be in flux for a while yet, so be aware that individual APIs and even broad approaches may change.

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