Manage Files In A tar Archive

Today we’ll have a fairly simple article, albeit a bit archaic, as we learn how to manage files in a tar archive. We often work with modern compression methods but tar files still exist and are in wide use. If this is something you’re interested in, this is the article for you. If this isn’t something you need right now, remember this article and look it up later when you do need to manage files in a tar archive.

Sure, tar now often ends with .gz or .bz, but they still exist. You’ll still see them and you’ll still get regular questions about them. In fact, a lot of folks will ask questions like, “How do I install files from a .tar file?” Alas, that’s a pretty broad question and not something we’ll answer here. However, the answer is, “Manually.” That’s how you install files from a tar file, generally speaking.

What Are tar Files?

So, I’m pretty sure we’ve covered this before, but ‘tar’ stands for ‘tape archive’ and is a pretty old standard. Yes, I am well aware that tape archives still exist. There’s no reason to leave a comment telling me that. I know, but I suspect most tar files never see a tape throughout their entire lives. If you’re curious, the man page describes the tar application as this:

tar – an archiving utility

The format has been around since 1979, though it has undergone some changes along the way. If you’re interested, there’s an excellent Wikipedia article about tar files. It’s well worth skimming it, as I did when I wrote an earlier article.

Basically, tar is a way to organize multiple files into a single file. Tar files are not compressed in and of themselves. We more often see them compressed with .gz (or the like) but the format doesn’t include compression of any kind. It is also meant to work with any file system, as it contains no real file system in and of itself.

Well, eventually you may want to work with tar files. You may want to add, remove, or modify tar files. That’s all easily done within the Linux terminal and this article will show you how.

Manage Files In A tar Archive:

Obviously, you need a terminal for this application. By now, regular readers will know how to open a terminal. In most distros and desktops, you can just press CTRL + ALT + T and, with that, the default terminal will pop open.

With your terminal now open, let’s go ahead and create a new tar file to mess around with…

Now, we’re all set for this exercise…

Add Files To A tar File:

So, it’s easy enough to add files to a tar file. The syntax to do so is quite simple, though you do need a few flags.

Of course, you can add multiple files by just adding their file name. Using the files you created in the first step, you’d add files to a tar file like so:

To avoid any confusion later, we’re now going to clean up after ourselves, leaving just the foo.tar file.

Now, in your terminal you can type the following:

In the list of files, you should now only have the foo.tar file remaining. For neatness sake, this is an important step. You can list the files in a tar file with the following command:

The output should look like this:


Remove A File From A tar File:

Now that you have created a tar file and added files to it, you next need to learn how to remove a file from a tar file. That’s actually a very simple process. The syntax is as follows:

So, using our current example file, we’d do something like this:

You can check again to see that the foo3 file no longer exists.

Still with me?

Well then, the next logical step in this process would be learning how to…

Change Files In A tar File:

If a file already exists in a tar file, you will first need to extract that file. You can do so easily. Use the tar -tvf <file_name>.tar to find the specific file’s name. With the name of that file, you can extract it with this command:

So, using the example file that we’ve worked through, we’d change the file called foo2 by first extracting it, like so:

That will extract the foo2 file from the archive. You can then edit that file, say with nano, to make it say what you want it to say. Feel free to do so, but you must remember to save the file after you’re done editing the file. (To save files in nano, press CTRL + X, then Y, and then ENTER.)

Now, you just replace the file with the file you’ve edited. In this case, it’d be foo2 that you’ve edited. The syntax is pretty easy:

So, in our case, you’d be replacing foo2 with the previous foo2 file. That’s a nice and simple command. To finish the exercise, you can run this command:

Be sure to check the man page to learn what the flags do and to see the many other options that come with your tar application. It should absolutely be installed by default, on even the most bare of distros.


So, well, I figured this would be a fun article to write. I was not wrong. If you want, you can clean up after yourself with this command:

I figured it’d be a fun article for folks to follow and wrote it in a way that I hope facilitates that. There’s nothing all that complicated about it. If you want to manage files in a tar archive, this is a good way to do it. You could probably do it with a GUI, but this way is just as good – I think.

Also, this was the article I wanted to write last time. You got a meta article because of my poor internet connection. This was the article I’d hoped to write. It’s quite a bit different than most of my articles, but hopefully, it takes you clearly from the start to the finish – including cleaning up after yourself!

As always…

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How To: Decompress tar.bz2 Files

Today’s article will be simple enough, though it will have limited application, as we discuss how to decompress tar.bz2 files. While this is certainly suitable for a newbie and easy enough to learn, many folks will just choose the GUI route.

Of course, you’re not always able to use a GUI. Sometimes there’s no way to do this graphically and you’ll have to do this in the terminal – perhaps over SSH. In fact, with my crappy bandwidth, I like to upload compressed files and then extract them on the server itself. This sort of thing works for me.

We have already talked about how you go about compressing and decompressing .bz2 files. You can read that article here:

How To: Compress And Decompress .bz2 Files

This time we’re going to be working with ‘tar.bz2’ files – and decompressing these files is different than what you’ll have learned from the previous article.

What is ‘tar’?

A tar file stands for ‘Tape Archiver’ and is a compression method as old as time itself. Well, probably not that long – but a very long time. It’s sometimes referred to as a ‘tarball’ and Wikipedia tells me that it has been around since early 1979.

Here’s a good quote from Wikipedia:

The archive data sets created by tar contain various file system parameters, such as name, timestamps, ownership, file-access permissions, and directory organization.

The blurb goes on to mention that POSIX has supplanted tar in favor of pax, but when was the last time you saw a .pax file? So, tar is still widely in use.

The man page describes tar as:

tar – an archiving utility

Which is exactly the kind of thing we’re looking for. Imagine that?

What is .bz2?

If you read the link above, you’d know the answer to this question. I assume my readers are creatures of habit, so they’ve done no such thing. They’re probably skipping this section entirely and reading just the middle of the article.

Anyhow, in the previous .bz2 article, I mentioned this:

If you don’t already know, .bz2 files are bzip2 files. You’ll find that bzip2 is an opensource compression program that gets some regular usage, and you’ll sometimes find downloaded files that are compressed with this format. You may also, for compatibility reasons, want to compress files with bzip2 to share with other users who are already set on using the .bz2 format.

That sums it up nicely, though you don’t have to worry about that. See, with this particular command and these particular tar.bz2 files, you can decompress (extract) the files in one fell swoop. 

Just for the record, you should also know that the bzip2 man page defines itself like so:

bzip2, bunzip2 – a block-sorting file compressor, v1.0.8

Your man page might be different, saying that it’s a different version. Either way, that’s what bzip2 is and that’s what it’s used for. 

So, with all that in mind, we can get to the important bits of the article…

Decompress tar.bz2 Files:

As I mentioned in the intro, you can likely do this with your built-in GUI file extraction tool (often file-roller) easily enough. However, again as suggested in the intro, we’ll be doing this in the terminal. In most cases, you can press CTRL + ALT + T to open the terminal.

With your terminal open in the correct directory, you can start by listing the files in the archive without actually decompressing them. That command would look like this:

That will happily spit out a list of all the files included. If you want, you can make the output more verbose by adding the -v flag, so that it’d be tar -tvf for example.

Next, I assume you want to decompress the tar.bz2 files, that is to extract the files within. To do that, you’d want this command:

Finally, I’ll give you a fun command. Let’s say you only want to extract files of a certain type, that is with a certain extension, from your tar.bz2 file. Well, you can do that and it’s easily done. Just use this command:

That command would decompress and extract all the files with .jpg as their extension. You can use any extension there, being sure to use the * to indicate a wildcard even though you already specified it with the –wildcard flag. It is what it is.

There’s more that you can do, but those are the ways I figure most folks are going to decompress tar.bz2 files. Just be sure to check the man page (man tar) to learn more about the command.


Well, for better or worse, my articles have been pretty verbose lately. Yes, yes it does tell me how many words are in each article. I’m not sure why I ended up being more verbose lately, but I think it’s a good trend.

Anyhow, today we learn how to decompress tar.bz2 files in the Linux terminal. It’s a useful skill to have and a good tool to toss into your Linux toolkit. You never know when you’re going to need to use these commands, but there may come a time when you do – and you can refer back to this article to learn how.

Thanks for reading! If you want to help, or if the site has helped you, you can donate, register to help, write an article, or buy inexpensive hosting to start your site. If you scroll down, you can sign up for the newsletter, vote for the article, and comment.

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