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Python & XML by Christopher A. Jones, Fred L. Drake

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The DOM Specifications

The Document Object Model is defined in a series of recommendations from the W3C. The specifications clearly cover XML (or we would not be describing them in this book), but they cover other things as well. The initial version of the DOM actually came from the HTML world; browser vendors invented it in various flavors as part of the APIs available to client-side scripts embedded in web pages. Since the vendors each implemented different interfaces, there was a call from content creators to have a standardized interface so their pages would work in at least roughly equivalent ways on the different browsers. Since the W3C is the best available shared ground on which the vendors could build a common specification, the DOM specifications are developed there.

All standards organizations face issues regarding the longevity of their specifications, and the W3C is no exception, no matter that it is quite young compared to more traditional standards groups such as ANSI and ISO. Given the relative youth of the W3C, it has had to deal with these issues almost from the start due to the rapid pace of development and the way standards are applied on the Internet. It does follow a traditional model however, rather than following the less formal (though highly effective) model of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

Most of the W3C recommendations provide a version number of the major.minor style favored by software developers, perhaps due to the origins of the organization. This is probably most prominent when we look at the HTML specifications; many versions have been released, and each is distinct from the others. Documents that contain anything beyond the simplest content cannot hope to comply with more than one version of the recommendation. This seems difficult to avoid for a markup language, but the effect is often that the standards are not as valuable as they could be if it were possible to maintain a higher degree of version independence.

The W3C is doing something different with the DOM. The specifications for the DOM do not have versions in the same sense that the HTML specification does. The new versioning model is also being used with the Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) recommendations, although those specifications are outside the scope of this book.

The DOM specification has been developed as a family of individual specifications, and the family can be described along two different axes: breadth and depth. When we think about the breadth of the recommendations, we can describe a broad family as including many features. For depth, we can describe a deep family as reaching further into the details as well as covering basic functionality. A broad family does many things, while a deep family tree covers many details. The W3C describes functional areas as features, while it describes depth of detail as levels.

Levels of the Specification

The levels of a specification are interesting to discuss first because they can be most confusing for many people. It is common to hear levels described as being just a strange name for the traditional notion of versions, but they are quite different. (Unfortunately, the DOM specifications themselves are not always clear about this.) As each feature of the DOM is enhanced, new levels are defined. This similarity to traditional versions certainly makes it easy to confuse the two concepts, but there is an important difference: an implementation of the second level must include an implementation of the first; advancing beyond the first level does not break compatibility for code that only expects to work with the older variant of the specification.

Each level of the DOM specifications cuts across the entire breadth of the DOM family, as it existed when it was defined (with one exception). Successive levels have introduced new features as well. Implementations are not required to implement all the features of the DOM, but generally need to implement the features they include at the same level.

At the time of this writing, two levels of the DOM have been defined by W3C recommendations, with a third level being developed by working groups within the W3C. The primordial interfaces defined by browser implementations before the DOM standardization began are often described as “Level 0.” The Level 1 specification from the W3C consists of a single recommendation that defines only two features, Core and HTML. This level provides general support for HTML and the XML 1.0 recommendation, but nothing else. For Level 2, the W3C broke the specification into six different documents. The Core feature was split into the Core and XML features, and support for Namespaces was added. New features added in Level 2 include an events model (mostly, but not entirely, for use in browsers), Cascading Style Sheets, document traversal, range specifications, and a vague concept of document views. Oddly, the HTML feature for Level 2 has not been completed and there has been no visible progress for quite some time.

The third level of the DOM, still only available as a set of working drafts, contains just four documents at this time. The Core, XML, and Events features are further refined, but most of the interesting work is taking place in new features. The current plans include new features for schemas (supporting at least the DTD and XML Schema languages), loading and saving XML documents, and an object model for XPath expressions. (We look at XPath in the next chapter, but it’s too early to consider that the XPath feature of the DOM is ready.)

Feature Specifications

The features defined by the DOM vary from level to level, with new features being added and old features being split into separate features. The former is not a problem because code that works with an implementation of earlier levels simply will not need the newer features. In practice, the second has not been demonstrated to introduce any difficulty either, if only because Level 2 implementations always implement both the Core and XML features. For any implementation, the only required feature is the Core.

Since most Python implementations of the DOM provide at least some features from Level 2, and Level 3 exists only in draft form, let’s take a look at what each feature defined for Level 2 provides to the application developer.


This includes basic structures required to expose well-formed XML documents without exposing any DTD information. In particular, entities, notations, entity references, and processing instructions are not provided. These are the interfaces with which we are concerned with in this chapter.


This feature set adds additional interfaces used to represent entity and notation declarations provided by the document type declaration (though not the document type itself), and some lexical information helpful in generating a modified document, including CDATA sections, entity references, and processing instructions.


This feature is interesting in that it is broken down into several specific subfeatures. All implementations that support any type of events must support the basic Events feature, but only need to support the specific subfeatures which make sense for the implementation. The subfeatures include support for various classes of user-interface events and document-modification events.


The range feature provides interfaces that make it possible to describe a portion of a document that cannot be represented as a sequence of nodes; this can be especially useful when describing a selection from the document as might be highlighted by the user.


This provides support for traversal over the nodes of a document (or part of a document) in either the order in which they are found in the document, or as a tree-based traversal where the application guides a cursor to visit child nodes, parent nodes, or siblings during the traversal. Nodes can be filtered so the application need not deal with nodes it is not interested in.


A vague specification that deals with providing multiple types of views on a document. This is not clearly useful.


An abstract interface used to represent stylesheets. This is not specifically bound to Cascading Style Sheets, but may be used to represent other kinds of stylesheets as well. Since each stylesheet language is substantially different, this does not provide much styling information.


The CSS feature includes extensions of the Style Sheets interfaces that provide substantially more style information. These interfaces provide a great deal of information about CSS Level 2 stylesheets. This is intended to be used in browsers and editors, which are expected to update their presentation based on changes to the stylesheets using these interfaces.

Additional DOM features are being prepared outside the DOM working group for specific XML-based languages. Information about these and the specifications from the DOM working group is available online at http://www.w3.org/DOM/DOMTR.

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