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It seems that ESRI introduced the layer package in ArcGIS 9.3.1.

I have been provided with layer packages containing essential data, but do not have access to this software.

Ideally, I'd like to be able to open them using some open source tool. I mainly use R, but Quantum GIS or GRASS would be okay at a stretch.

Suggestions about the best way to access this data are appreciated.

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

A .lpk file is just a ZIP file. If you rename it (or just open in a ZIP file tool) you should find an "iteminfo.xml" file that will contain further information about what's inside.

Here's a diagram of the structure, click through to see the Esri docs on it: diagram of layer structure

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7zip is great for opening any file as an archive, even when you don't know what kind it might be. I've discovered all kinds of hidden goodies by expedient of "open with 7zip" on random file types. – matt wilkie May 16 '12 at 18:15
Very helpful. As indicated in your figure, the shapefiles I was looking for were in commonData\Data0 – digitalmaps May 17 '12 at 0:09
This applies to specific data formats (shapefiles, etc), but wouldn't apply to proprietary Esri data formats stored in the Layer Package, such as SDC Feature Classes. – Gady Jan 29 '13 at 19:56

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