5 Best Ways to Perform High-Level File Operations in Python with Shutil

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πŸ’‘ Problem Formulation: When working with file operations in Python, tasks often include copying files, moving directories, and deleting data. For instance, you might need to copy all files with a .txt extension from one directory to another and confirm the action’s success. Utilizing Python’s shutil module can simplify these high-level operations. This module provides a simple interface to os-level file operations, which can be cumbersome and error-prone if handled manually.

Method 1: Copying Files With shutil.copy()

Copying files is a routine task in filesystem management. The shutil.copy() method in Python enables the copying of a file from a source path to a destination path. It can be used to duplicate the contents of a file while preserving its permission mode but does not copy the metadata.

Here’s an example:

import shutil

source = '/path/to/source/file.txt'
destination = '/path/to/destination/file.txt'
shutil.copy(source, destination)

Output: '/path/to/destination/file.txt'

This code snippet demonstrates how to copy the file file.txt from a source directory to a different destination directory. The shutil.copy() function returns the path to the new file created in the destination directory.

Method 2: Moving Files or Directories with shutil.move()

When reorganizing directories or renaming files, moving is an essential operation. The function shutil.move() is capable of moving a file or entire directory to another location. If the destination is a directory, the source is moved inside it with the same basename.

Here’s an example:

import shutil

source = '/path/to/original/location/data.txt'
destination = '/path/to/new/location/'
shutil.move(source, destination)

Output: '/path/to/new/location/data.txt'

The code above illustrates how to use the shutil.move() function to move the file data.txt from its original location to a new one. After executing, the file will no longer exist in the original location.

Method 3: Deleting Directories with shutil.rmtree()

The removal of entire directory trees can be achieved using the shutil.rmtree() method. Care should be taken with this operation as it recursively deletes all files and subdirectories in the specified path, similar to the Unix command rm -rf.

Here’s an example:

import shutil

directory = '/path/to/remove/directory'

Output: None (The directory and its contents are deleted)

This snippet safely removes the directory located at the given path along with all its contents. It’s important to ensure the correct path is specified to prevent accidental deletion of the wrong data.

Method 4: Archiving Directories with shutil.make_archive()

For backing up directories or sharing multiple files at once, archiving is a popular solution. Python’s shutil.make_archive() method creates an archive (such as zip or tar) from the contents of a directory. This method is versatile, with support for multiple output formats.

Here’s an example:

import shutil

directory = '/path/to/archive'
output_filename = 'archive'
shutil.make_archive(output_filename, 'zip', directory)

Output: 'archive.zip'

This example demonstrates creating a zip archive named archive.zip, which contains the entire contents of the specified directory. The archive will be saved in the current working directory unless a different path is provided.

Bonus One-Liner Method 5: Quick File Deletion with shutil.rmtree() and Pathlib

The combination of shutil.rmtree() with Python’s pathlib allows for concise one-liners for directory tree deletion. It’s a powerful one-liner but should be used with caution due to its irreversible nature.

Here’s an example:

from shutil import rmtree
from pathlib import Path


Output: None (The directory and its contents are deleted)

Using Path objects simplifies specifying the directory to be deleted and the rmtree() function from shutil handles the deletion process.


  • Method 1: Copying Files. Strengths: Simple and preserves file content with permission mode. Weaknesses: Does not copy metadata, such as time stamps.
  • Method 2: Moving Files or Directories. Strengths: Moves items, freeing up space from the original location. Weaknesses: The operation is destructive; the original files/directories are no longer available at the source location post-move.
  • Method 3: Deleting Directories. Strengths: Recursively deletes directories, useful for cleanup tasks. Weaknesses: Highly destructive; requires caution to avoid accidental data loss.
  • Method 4: Archiving Directories. Strengths: Supports multiple archive formats for flexibility. Weaknesses: Large directories may take a considerable amount of time to archive.
  • Bonus Method 5: Quick File Deletion with Pathlib. Strengths: Extremely concise for deletion operations. Weaknesses: No safety net; once deleted, data is not recoverable historically.