Table of contents


What objects in a module can you use? One common convention is that starting a name with a single underscore makes it “private” (though really “hidden” might be a better term for how it’s usually handled - most tools hide these objects from auto-complete unless you start typing an _).

Naming anything you don’t expect outside users to use in this way is a good practice. In practical terms for a library author, it means you can modify or remove any _* objects without worrying about who it might break. And for a library user, try to never use anything starting with a single _, as that could be changed at any time.

However, this convention has limits. What about imports? You usually don’t (and shouldn’t) rename your imports. But they don’t start with an underscore, so does that make them public? Even from __future__ import annotations will add an annotations object, publicly visible, to your project!

A second solution sometimes attempted is deleting things after using them. This can cause surprising problems in some cases, though, due to Python’s late binding. It’s also easy to forget to delete something like an import, due to the fact the del statements are at the end of the module, far away from the usage.

Setting all

The solution to this is the __all__ attribute. This is a public declaration of your exported API. It looks like this:

__all__ = ["object1", "Class1", "some_reexport"]

Setting this does several things:

  • It controls what is imported if a user does from module import *.
  • It provides a human readable list of the module’s public API without looking at the entire file (ideally place it near the top of the file).
  • It informs static tools like type checkers about the public API, including re-exports of things you import.
  • It can be used to control what dir(module) (and therefore tab completion) sees.

If you want to improve tab completion / dir() calls, you can add this small boilerplate function to your modules:

def __dir__() -> list[str]:
    return __all__

This causes tab completion to only show your public API! You can still access everything in the module, it just won’t be shown to the user.

This __dir__() trick doesn’t work very well on modules, since ideally you want submodules to be shown if they have been imported. It’s best to keep modules minimal. It’s tempting to import contents from your submodules in, but keep in mind importing any submodule always runs all parent __init__.pys, so you’ll likely take an import performance hit and might have to deal with circular import issues in order to save a user a few keystrokes.

There are some dynamic solutions to building your __all__ variable without having to list all the items in a list near the top of your file. However, you lose several features doing so, such as the human readable list of module contents and static type checker support.