This lesson is being piloted (Beta version)

Generating a List of Files


Teaching: 20 min
Exercises: 10 min
  • How can I use Python to find different types of files?

  • Import modules to add functions to a Python script

  • Use os.walk and glob.glob to generate lists of files

The First Step: Finding Files

Before Alice can manipulate groups of files with Python, she needs to direct Python to the locations of those files.

Gaining a basic understanding of file systems is an important first step in learning how to find and work with files. File systems provide a structured method for arranging data on a storage device. If you’ve ever formatted a hard drive using Disk Utility (macOS) or Disk Management (Windows), you’ve applied some form of file system to your device. That file system is what makes it possible to create files and folders on your storage device.

File systems have different rules, regulations, and ways of behaving; in your work as AV archivists, you’ll most likely encounter a few common acronyms:

If you’ve used a program like Windows Explorer or macOS Finder, you probably have an intuitive sense of how to navigate within file systems simply by clicking or double-clicking on folders or file icons. When we use scripts, we’re using a similar logic to express the location of a particular object within the larger hierarchical system structure – the file path.

File paths are a series of text-based breadcrumbs that describe the location of a particular file or directory. There are two types of file paths:

Alice uses macOS. For her, the root directory is the slash character /. Every absolute file path will start with /.

The absolute file path to a specific file located on Alice’s desktop would look something like: /Users/alice/Desktop/pyforav/on_demand/ That path will always lead to that file, no matter where she’s working from (her current working directory).

Root Directories on Windows vs Mac/Linux

On Windows, there isn’t a root directory for the entire machine. File systems are rooted on the storage volume that they use. For example, A:\ has traditionally referred to the root directory of a floppy drive. And C:\ generally refers to the root directory that contains user files, programs, and Windows itself.

On Mac/Linux, the operating system defines a single file system for all devices. The root folder is ‘/’. If you plug in an external drive, it is probably mounted as a folder in ‘/Volumes/’.

Some parts of that path, for example, Desktop, might be as familiar to you as the folders you see in a GUI. A file path encodes the same hierarchy of folders that we click through, expressing it as series of folder names divided by slashes. We know that pyforav is a subdirectory stored inside of Desktop. We can also see that pyforav is a subdirectory of alice, which is a subdirectory of Users which is a subdirectory of root.

You may not see folders like Users on a regular basis. Often, we spend time working from a folder like Desktop and thinking about the locations of files relative to that folder. The relative file path to from Alice’s Desktop is pyforav/on_demand/ That path only works in relation to the Desktop folder. If we try to access pyforav/on_demand/ from the root folder, our computer will report an error, explaining that it cannot find anything at that path.

This distinction will become important as we begin using Python to find and do things to different kinds of files. Our first step will always be gathering up file paths based upon a chosen quality, say, for example, filename extension (.mov, .mkv, .mp4, etc.).


On Windows, the backward slash \ is used to separate parts of a path. This difference in the directionality of the slash can be frustrating when moving between Mac and Windows operating systems. We will be using Python to remove some of these frustrations and write code that is cross-functional.

If you find code in this workshop that doesn’t work because it uses the wrong kind of slashes for your operating system, please let us know.

Running More Python Cells

For each of the following paths, choose if they are

  1. absolute or relative
  2. Windows or Unix/Mac
1. C:\\Users\\admin\\Desktop
2. /Desktop/Downloads
4. usr/local/bin/python


  1. Absolute, Windows
  2. Absolute, Unix/Mac
  3. Relative, Windows/Unix/Mac
  4. Relative, Unix/Mac

Listing Files in a Folder

Now let’s learn how to list the contents of our filesystem with Python.

import os

(Your results may be slightly different depending on your operating system and how you’ve customized your filesystem.)

A lot of things just happened here, so we’ll step through each one-by-one.

  1. importing modules
  2. calling functions
  3. lists and strings

Importing modules (import os)

The very first line is import os. This is instructs python to load the os module.

Modules, or code libraries designed to expand Python’s functionality, can be a little tricky. There are a few kinds of modules within Python:

There are two ways to figure out which modules you have pre-installed.

In a Jupyter notebook or Python console:


Or in a separate terminal window:

pip list

The base python environment only has a few built-in functions. In order to power up, you’ll need to import modules with the abilities that you need. You only need to load a module once per script. To make sure we load every module that we need, typically we put all of our import statements at the very top of a script.

Loading another module

We will be using the glob module to find files. Do you have glob installed? How would you load it into your script?


Yes, glob is one of the standard distribution modules. It can be loaded like this:

import glob

Calling functions os.listdir()

In this code

os.listdir() prints the names of files and folders in the current directory as a list. By default, os.listdir() prints contents of the current working directory. In our case that’s the home folder.

Python Syntax: Modules and .

Like directory structures, modules have a hierarchical structure. Each module can contain functions and submodules, which themselves can contain functions and submodules. The . syntax works like the slash in a filepath. It clarifies that we want to use a function defined in a specific module. If we don’t include the parent modules, the Python interpreter won’t know where to find the function we want to run.

Python Syntax: Functions and ()

Whenever you see text immediately followed by ( ... ), you’re looking at a function call. If no additional information is needed, the parentheses are left empty, like os.listdir(). Additional information, known as arguments, is written between the parentheses, like this os.listdir('Desktop').

It can also print the contents of another folder. We will use the relative path to the Desktop.


If the path points to a folder that doesn’t exist, os.listdir() will spit out an error message.


We’re curious about the contents of the pyforav folder, so let’s examine that. Because we will use this path repeatedly, first we will store it with what’s called a “variable.”

On macOS:

video_dir = '/Users/username/Desktop/pyforav'

On Windows:

video_dir = 'C:\\Users\\username\\Desktop\\pyforav'

Let’s check to make sure we have the right path.

['120th anniversary',

Lists and Strings

Python classifies data in different ways to make it useable for functions. The output of os.listdir() introduces us to two data types, strings and lists.

Python Syntax: Strings

Characters that you want Python to interpret as single piece of text need to be quoted. This is called a string. You can uses either single-quotes ' or double-quotes " to wrap a string, although single-quotes are more common (and you don’t have to hit the shift-key)

Strings will be one of our workhorse data types. We’ve used strings to read folder paths and write new paths. Later on, we’ll use them in other contexts as well.

Strings include a number of methods to manipulate them. For example,

''.replace('mov', 'mp4')

Notice that we’re using the dot-notation mentioned aboved to call a function. In this case, the replace function uses the string itself as an argument. These types of functions - ones that are attached to objects - are called methods.

Python Syntax: Lists

In Python, lists start and end with square brackets [ ]. Lists can contain any kind of data, strings, numbers, other lists, etc. Each list item is separated by a comma.

This is a list that contains three items.

['120th anniversary',

This is a list that contains just one item. Can you spot the difference?

['120th anniversary, federal_grant, on_demand']

To learn more about lists, let’s work with the list of folders that we created above. First we will store the results of that function call to a variable so that we can use refer to the list repeatedly without having to call the function every time.

project_folders = os.listdir(video_dir)

Now we can experiment with the list called project_folders. We can calculate the length of the list:


We can print specific items within a list by “subscripting” (note that Python uses “zero-based indexing,” a.k.a. the first element of a list will start with 0):

'120th anniversary'

We can use a negative index to begin at the end of a list:


We can sort the list (when strings, this means alphabetizing; when integers/floats, this means imposing numerical order):

['120th anniversary',

We can add items to a list (by using the append method):

['120th anniversary',

Listing all the files in a directory

Finding files with Bash

For reference, in a Unix environment, you might run something like this.

$ find Desktop/pyforav -type f 

It’s useful to know how to accomplish the same goal in multiple ways. You may be more comfortable with Bash commands. You may have existing workflows with Bash. You may have another reason. Python is a complementary tool to your existing skillset. It does not have to replace the way you do things.

With os.listdir() we could list all the files in a directory of our choosing, but if we have a nested set of folders, as in Alice’s case, we would have to run os.listdir over and over again. Instead, we will use a function from the glob module and a function from the os.path submodule.

glob is a module that lets you use wildcards like * in filepaths. For example, the glob pattern Desktop/*av matches against all file and folder names that end with av in the Desktop folder. However, you need to use a function from the glob module to perform that match.

If you haven’t loaded the glob module, you can load it now.

['Desktop/pyforav', <maybe additional files depending on your Desktop>]

We’d like to search for all of the mov files stored within our video directory (pyforav), so we’ll need to construct a glob-pattern for those paths. For this, we’ll use two wildcard characters.

globbing for mov files

What would be a glob-pattern for filenames ending in mov in the nested folders of video_dir?


C:\Users\username\Desktop\pyforav\**\*mov or /Users/username/Desktop/pyforav/**/*mov

The above challenge points to common frustrations with file paths.

The answer is to tell Python to figure out.


The os module has an entire submodule devoted to working with paths, os.path. We can use video_dir to experiment.

We can find out if the path points to a file or a folder.


We can extract the relative path based on our current directory.


We can generate the absolute path, if we’re starting only with the relative path.

relpath = os.path.relpath(video_dir)

We can find the folder that holds the last piece of the filepath.


We can create a path based on components, and let os.path handle the syntax.

os.path.join(video_dir, 'nonexistent_file.gif')
badpath = os.path.join(video_dir, 'nonexistent_file.gif')

os.path.join and globbing

How would you use os.path.join to create the glob pattern for mov files?


os.path.join(video_dir, '**', '*mov')

Depending on your system, you should see C:\Users\username\Desktop\pyforav\**\*mov or /Users/username/Desktop/pyforav/**/*mov

Python Syntax: Functions with multiple arguments

If a function uses more than argument, each argument is separated by a comma. Arguments can be anything, including strings, lists, variables that hold strings, and other functions. However, functions often do have rules regarding what they will or will not accept. For example, using a list as an argument in os.path.join will return an error.

os.path.join(['Desktop', 'pyforav'])
TypeError: expected str, bytes or os.PathLike object, not list

But using the same strings not enclosed in square brackets returns the results we’re after.

os.path.join('Desktop', 'pyforav')

Finally, we can combine glob.glob() and os.path.join() to generate our list of files. In order to search recursively through nested folders, we’ll need to provide an extra argument to glob.glob(), recursive=True.

mov_list = glob.glob(os.path.join(video_dir, '**', '*mov'), recursive=True)

How many files?

How many files were found using glob.glob? Hint, calculate the length of the list.



Another strategy for generating a file list

glob.glob does one job - finding filepaths - really well. It can’t do other jobs, like count the number of subdirectories or find all the files that don’t match a particular pattern. If you need to do additional filtering, counting, or other operations, you’ll need a different strategy.

The following code generates the same list as our glob.glob but uses 6 lines instead of 1. Under-the-hood, glob.glob is performing a very similar set of steps as this code. However, it can be useful to split the steps into individual components, in case you’ll want to perform additional actions while generating your list of files.

mov_list = []
for root, dirs, files in os.walk(video_dir):
    for file in files:
        if file.endswith('.mov'):
            item_path = os.path.join(root, file)

We don’t need to fully understand this code right now. It uses concepts like for loops and if conditionals that will be covered in upcoming lessons. For now, it’s a useful exercise to see if you can get the gist of what’s happening.

What does the above code do?

Go through each line of the code above. What do you think happens on each line?

Key Points

  • Collecting filepaths is often the first step of any AV script

  • The import statement allows you to expand Python’s functionality by loading modules with specialized functions

  • Standard distribution modules are installed with Python. Other modules must be installed

  • Two common modules for listing files with Python are os and glob

  • The filepath is the sequence of parent folders that define the location of a particular file or directory