How to Create a List of Lists in R

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Lists are one of the most versatile data structures in R, offering a way to store a collection of objects in an ordered manner. However, what happens when you need to store lists within lists? In R, you can easily create a list of lists to achieve multi-dimensional, hierarchical, or nested data structures. This comprehensive article will delve into various methods, use-cases, and best practices for creating and manipulating lists of lists in R.

Understanding Lists in R

Before we delve into lists of lists, it’s crucial to understand what a list is in R. A list is an R object that can contain a variety of other objects like vectors, matrices, other lists, data frames, functions, etc.

Example of a Simple List:

simple_list <- list(name="John", age=30, city="New York")

Basic Creation of a List of Lists

Creating a list of lists is as straightforward as creating a regular list. You define a list and then add other lists as its elements.


list1 <- list(1, 2, 3)
list2 <- list("a", "b", "c")
list_of_lists <- list(list1, list2)

Adding Elements to a List of Lists

You can add new elements, even new lists, to an existing list of lists using several methods.

Using the c( ) Function:

new_list <- list(4, 5, 6)
list_of_lists <- c(list_of_lists, list(new_list))

Using Indexing:

list_of_lists[[3]] <- list(4, 5, 6)

Accessing Elements in a List of Lists

To access elements, you’ll need to use double indexing. The first index will specify which sublist you want, and the second will specify the element within that sublist.


element <- list_of_lists[[1]][[2]]  # Retrieves the 2nd element from the 1st list

Modifying Elements in a List of Lists

Modification is similar to accessing elements but involves assignment.

list_of_lists[[1]][[2]] <- 10  # Changes the 2nd element in the 1st list to 10

Use-Cases for a List of Lists

  1. Hierarchical Data Models: When your data follows a hierarchical or a tree-like structure.
  2. Storing Graphs: For network and graph-based algorithms.
  3. Grouping Data: When you have different categories of data that are themselves categorized.

List of Lists with Data Frames

Data frames themselves can be elements within a list, thus enabling you to create a list of data frames, which essentially becomes a list of lists.

df1 <- data.frame(a = c(1, 2, 3), b = c('a', 'b', 'c'))
df2 <- data.frame(x = c(4, 5, 6), y = c('d', 'e', 'f'))

list_with_df <- list(df1, df2)

Performance Considerations

Lists of lists can become memory hogs if not managed carefully. Also, excessive nesting can lead to performance bottlenecks when iterating through the structure.


Lists of lists are an extremely useful and flexible data structure in R. They allow you to create complex, multi-layered objects to store different types of variables or other lists. Whether you’re building hierarchical models, categorizing data, or performing high-level data manipulation, lists of lists provide a go-to option. However, it’s crucial to manage them carefully to avoid performance issues.

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