Basic file operations in Python

2144 words, 11 minutes to read

In this short (spoiler: it's actually quite lengthy) post, I will be going through a list of very useful and handy methods in the os module (which is part of the Python standard library) for handling files and directories.

1. Create a directory

This one is pretty straightforward. If you're comfortable with the linux shell, you know that mkdir is the command to use to create directories. Unsurprisingly, Python uses the same naming convention.


import os


The method takes a string its argument and will create the directory under the file's parent folder. (For instance, if the path to the file calling os.mkdir() is /home/username/Documents/, the "my_awesome_directory" will be created under /home/username/Documents)

2. Get a file's parent directory.

This is useful if you want to get the path to a file/folder that you know is under the working file's parent directory. If this was confusing, here's an example.

In the Linux shell (bash or otherwise), you can issue the command pwd (which I believe stands for "print working directory") to quickly print your current location within a given session.

In Python you would achieve this like so:

import os

CURRENT_DIR = os.getcwd()

Notice I used all caps for the variable name. This is because it's usually a constant. This variable isn't meant to be changed. You can now use this variable to locate any file or folder within that directory. Keep reading and I'll show you how.

3. Concatenate paths

This is something you'll find yourself doing a lot. Especially on large projects that require configuration files and other such things. If you have experience working with Django for example, they have a file littered with calls to the os module. There are many benefits to this approach. Perhaps the most obvious being is that if you ever decide to move your project to another location, you don't want to keep modifying the path every time. Remember, programming is all about being lazy.

So this is how you would do it:

import os

# Assuming this file is located at /home/username/myproject/
# and that you want to operate on a a file called config.cfg within the same
# directory :

CURRENT_DIR = os.getcwd() # evaluates to /home/username/myproject
MY_TEXT_FILE = os.path.join(CURRENT_DIR, "config.cfg")

print(MY_TEXT_FILE) # /home/username/myproject/config.cfg

An important note: os.path.join() merely concatenates the two paths together. It doesn't check whether the path is valid. So be careful when using this method. Also notice how the method call is to os.path.join() and not os.join()

4. Check that a path exists

The other day I was working on a small web scraper for a side project of mine. After the it was done fetching data, my script would save the results into a pickle file (don't worry if you don't know what it is) that would be read by my program, saving me the trouble of sitting there waiting to fetch the same info over and over again each time I run the script.

The solution was to tell my script to check whether a specific file (let's call it results.pkl) exists at a given path. If it does, the program continues and if not, the program executes the crawler function.

This is clever because now I only have to fetch the data and if the file gets deleted I know I can rely on the program to go and crawl the sites as expected.

And now for the example:

import os

CURRENT_DIR = os.getcwd()
RESULTS_FILE = os.path.join(CURRENT_DIR, "results.pkl")

def crawl_data():
    # scrapes a bunch of websites and saves the result in a file called
    # results.pkl under the current directory

if not os.path.exists(RESULTS_FILE):

    ## the file exists so we can open it and work with its content

The same thing can be done to check that the path exists AND that it's a directory:

CURRENT_DIR = os.getcwd()
MY_DIRECTORY = os.path.join(CURRENT_DIR, "my_directory")

if os.path.exists(MY_DIRECTORY) and os.path.isdir(MY_DIRECTORY):
    ## do something with the files inside the folder

5. List files within a given directory

Very useful when you want to read several files that are under the same directory. It can be done in two ways: conventional and pythonic. I'll show you both.

for file in os.listdir("/path/to/dir"):
    # do something with the filename (open it, copy it,  move it, rename it...)


filenames = [file for file in os.listdir("/path/to/dir")]

Guess which way is more pythonic!


These have been the most useful file/directory functions for me in Python. I really love the fact that the method names sound natural and are (for the most part) similar to linux commands. What are your favourite file operation methods? Any tip or trick you want to share with me? Something I've missed? Ping on twitter! I'm @aaqaishtyaq.

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