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Sphinx tutorial

What is this?

You will learn how to add Sphinx documentation to a Python package (using the example astrospam Python package in this repo).

The focus is exclusively on technical aspects how to work with Sphinx. We will not have time to talk about how to write good documentation, i.e. what content to create and how to structure it.

You are encouraged to follow along, i.e. try out every step on your computer after we demo it.

Before we start:

  • Who has run Sphinx before (i.e. run sphinx-build or make html or python build_sphinx)?
  • Who has set up Sphinx before (i.e. run sphinx-quickstart, edited docs/

If you have a question, or something isn't working for you, or if I'm going too fast, please feel free to interrupt us at any time!


  1. Introduction
  2. Installation
  3. Quickstart
  4. RST
  5. Autodoc
  6. Theme
  7. Final comments

1. Introduction

We'll start with a quick overview of Sphinx and related things by having a look at the following web pages.

If you want to learn more, please go back and read the info on those pages after the tutorial on your own.

  • We won't talk about this Sphinx. (I don't know why the Sphinx documentation generator was given that name.)
  • To get some basic info on Sphinx, read the Wikipedia on Sphinx (documentation generator) or the welcome page of the Sphinx website at .
  • The most useful pages in the Sphinx documentation to get started are the Sphinx tutorial and the reStructuredText Primer
  • Almost all Python projects use reStructured text (RST) and Sphinx for documentation. Examples: Python Astropy, Astroplan
  • As the Wikipedia article on reStructuredText (RST) explains, RST is a markup language (like LaTeX or Markdown) that is mostly used for Python docstrings (in .py files) and high-level documentation (in .rst files).
  • Sphinx is the tool that takes RST as input and produces HTML or PDF as output. To be more precise, Sphinx is a Python package that is mostly used via the command line tools sphinx-quickstart and sphinx-build (which again you typically invoke via a Makefile).
  • Python docstrings are extracted by the Sphinx "autodoc" feature to auto-generate API (application programming interface) docs. There's a few different formats for docstrings in use that Sphinx supports.
  • The one all scientific Python packages (Numpy, Scipy, Astropy, ...) use is called the Numpy docstring standard which as added as a built-in Sphinx extension called sphinx.ext.napoleon (I don't know why it was called Napoleon.)
  • Once documentation is set up for your package, it's typically easy to generate HTML output by just running make html which calls sphinx-build, or by executing python build_sphinx which runs the Sphinx build. Then you can look at the output by just opening up index.html in some output directory where the HTML docs have been generated. Working on documentation is then a matter of editing .rst or .py files, running make html and checking the HTML output or console for errors and warnings.
  • Finally, if you want to host the generated HTML, the free and services are good options. We won't have time to cover those today, feel free to ask us after if you want to learn how they work or want help to set it up for your project.

Let's go ahead with our hands-on introduction to Sphinx and start using it ...

2. Installation

Open a terminal and type sphinx<TAB>. If this lists sphinx-* commands (e.g sphinx-quickstart or sphinx-build), you have Sphinx installed. Type sphinx-build --version to check the Sphinx version number.

The latest stable version is 1.3. If you have 1.2 or older, I'd suggest you update now e.g. using:

$ pip install --upgrade sphinx
$ conda install sphinx

Later on we'll use the sphinx_rtd_theme . Please install it now via:

$ pip install sphinx_rtd_theme

Before we continue, everyone please check that you're set up:

$ sphinx-build --version
Sphinx (sphinx-build) 1.3.6
$ python -c 'import sphinx_rtd_theme'
# Should give no output.
# If you get an ImportError, `sphinx_rtd_theme` isn't installed correctly.

3. Quickstart

Let's say you have a Python project consisting of a few .py files, and would like to use Sphinx to generate HTML or PDF documentation for it.

Example package

As an example for today's tutorial, please grab this repo:

$ git clone
$ cd sphinx-tutorial

As you can see, there is a Python package called astrospam:

$ tree .
├── README.rst
└── astrospam

But there's no HTML documentation for it. Let's change that!


To add Sphinx documentation, you run sphinx-quickstart

This will prompt you for some information and then generate a few of files.

For most questions you can just hit ENTER to accept the default. These are the questions where you don't take the default, but actually put something:

$ sphinx-quickstart

Welcome to the Sphinx 1.3.6 quickstart utility.

> Root path for the documentation [.]: docs
> Project name: astrospam
> Author name(s): Astrospam developers
> Project version: 0.1
> autodoc: automatically insert docstrings from modules (y/n) [n]: y

Finished: An initial directory structure has been created.

The tool created the following files:

  • docs/ -- Sphinx configuration file (a Python file)
  • docs/index.rst -- Name of your master docs page (a reStructuredText, aka RST file)
  • docs/Makefile -- Makefile as convenience to run Sphinx (for Linux and Mac OS X)
  • docs/make.bat -- Makefile for Windows

And the following empty directories:

  • docs/_build -- This is where all output files (e.g. HTML) will go when Sphinx runs.
  • docs/_static -- A place for static files, e.g. images or css (we won't use it)
  • docs/_templates -- A place for template files (we won't use it)


Now we're all set up to generate HTML docs:

$ cd docs
$ make html
sphinx-build -b html -d _build/doctrees   . _build/html
Running Sphinx v1.3.6
making output directory...
loading pickled environment... not yet created
building [mo]: targets for 0 po files that are out of date
building [html]: targets for 1 source files that are out of date
updating environment: 1 added, 0 changed, 0 removed
reading sources... [100%] index
looking for now-outdated files... none found
pickling environment... done
checking consistency... done
preparing documents... done
writing output... [100%] index
generating indices... genindex
writing additional pages... search
copying static files... done
copying extra files... done
dumping search index in English (code: en) ... done
dumping object inventory... done
build succeeded.

Build finished. The HTML pages are in _build/html.

Now open up _build/html/index.html in your webbrowser.

On Mac you can do:

$ open _build/html/index.html

Sphinx has generated a documentation webpage for you (with a sidebar, search field, main content area, footer)!

There's some other things you can do. Type make or make help to find out:

$ make
Please use `make <target>' where <target> is one of
  html       to make standalone HTML files
  dirhtml    to make HTML files named index.html in directories
  singlehtml to make a single large HTML file
  pickle     to make pickle files
  json       to make JSON files
  htmlhelp   to make HTML files and a HTML help project
  qthelp     to make HTML files and a qthelp project
  applehelp  to make an Apple Help Book
  devhelp    to make HTML files and a Devhelp project
  epub       to make an epub
  latex      to make LaTeX files, you can set PAPER=a4 or PAPER=letter
  latexpdf   to make LaTeX files and run them through pdflatex
  latexpdfja to make LaTeX files and run them through platex/dvipdfmx
  text       to make text files
  man        to make manual pages
  texinfo    to make Texinfo files
  info       to make Texinfo files and run them through makeinfo
  gettext    to make PO message catalogs
  changes    to make an overview of all changed/added/deprecated items
  xml        to make Docutils-native XML files
  pseudoxml  to make pseudoxml-XML files for display purposes
  linkcheck  to check all external links for integrity
  doctest    to run all doctests embedded in the documentation (if enabled)
  coverage   to run coverage check of the documentation (if enabled)

If you have pdflatex installed, you can try making a PDF version of your docs:

$ make latexpdf
sphinx-build -b latex -d _build/doctrees   . _build/latex
Running Sphinx v1.3.6
making output directory...
loading pickled environment... done
building [mo]: targets for 0 po files that are out of date
building [latex]: all documents
updating environment: 0 added, 0 changed, 0 removed
looking for now-outdated files... none found
processing astrospam.tex... index
resolving references...
writing... done
copying TeX support files...
build succeeded.
Running LaTeX files through pdflatex...

... 1000 lines of horrible LaTeX log output ...

Output written on astrospam.pdf (7 pages, 43725 bytes).
Transcript written on astrospam.log.
pdflatex finished; the PDF files are in _build/latex.

Open up _build/latex/astrospam.pdf and have a look:

$ open _build/latex/astrospam.pdf

We're all set up to write some documentation ...

4. RST

Now let's write some documentation.


This is done by adding text to docs/index.rst, or by adding extra .rst text files in docs and writing text using RST format there.

Writing documentation is a cycle similar to writing code:

  1. Edit .rst files
  2. Run make html
  3. Check output HTML files

For the following exercises, and generally while learning how to write RST, it's very helpful to have the "reStructuredText Primer" page from the Sphinx docs open:

Exercise 1

Let's do the documentation writing cycle once:

  1. Edit index.rst and add this line after the title:

    Hello world!
  2. Run make html

  3. Refresh the browser and watch the text appear in the HTML output.

Exercise 2

  • Add a sub-section called "Getting started".

  • Add the paragraph "The astrospam module provides:" followed by a list with entries Ham and spam.

  • Add a code example:

    $ python
    >>> import astrospam
    >>> astrospam.spam()
    >>> exit()

Exercise 3

  • Add a sub-page docs/tutorial.rst and copy & paste the following content there:

    This is the ``astrospam`` tutorial.
    Part 1
    Spam, spam, spam ...
    Part 2
    More spam!

Now add that page to the toctree directive in index.rst:

.. toctree::
   :maxdepth: 2


Exercise 4

Let's see what happens if we make an RST formatting mistake.

Remove some underline characters from the title:

Welcome to astrospam's documentation!

Sphinx will emit a warning pointing out the file and line number where the problem is and give a helpful message what the problem is:

docs/index.rst:7: WARNING: Title underline too short.

The HTML output will still be OK .. it's just a warning.

Exercise 5

Let's see what happens if you make an error in a Sphinx directive.

E.g. you could change the toctree directive in index.rst to toctreeeeeee:

.. toctreeeeeee::
   :maxdepth: 2

Now you'll get an error an the TOC will be missing in the output.

5. Autodoc

Run these commands:

mkdir -p docs/_templates/autosummary

TODO: link from docstrings to docs in RST file and the other way around.

Note that Sphinx autodoc imports the Python module and accesses docstrings stored in __doc__ attributes. This means that module-level and class-level code is executed.

TODO: Illustrate by adding print statements. TODO: Add code that throws an exception (e.g. import spam or 1/0 or a SyntaxError) and show the resulting Sphinx error message.

Explain about __all__

6. Theme

TODO: show how to change to the readthedocs template and what changes.

7. Final comments

  • We hope that this tutorial gave you a basic understanding of what Sphinx is, how it works, and how you use it to generate the documentation for Python projects.
  • You should now be able to contribute to the documentation of existing Python projects and maybe even be able to set up Sphinx for your own package (e.g. by copy & pasting the working package-template setup).
  • There's many things we didn't cover that will come up if you start contributing to Sphinx documentation for projects like Astropy or Astropy-affiliated packages: plot directive, integration, doctests, ...
  • Sphinx, like other documentation generators such as LaTeX or Doxygen, is a very complicated, and extremely extensible and customisable tool. Even with years of experience you can easily get stuck with an uncomprehensible error message and get frustrated. Don't be shy to ask for help!


A little Sphinx documentation tutorial at the PyAstro16 workshop








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