Creating a documentation website from docstrings

This guide shows how to convert existing Python code with well-formatted docstrings into a dedicated online documentation website for your project, using autodocumentation tools. Examples of autodocs can be seen here and here

  1. Install Sphinx in your working environment. Depending on the formatting of your docstrings, you may need to also install an extension that allows sphinx to correctly parse them. I use Google-style docstrings, which are supported in sphinx by default

     $ conda activate project_env
     $ conda install sphinx
  2. In your project repository, make a top-level directory named docs. For example, in a recent project dysts, My directory has the following structure

     ├── benchmarks/
     │	└── ...
     ├── docs/
     │	├── spbuild/
     │	│	└── ...
     │	├── .nojekyll
     │	├── Makefile
     │	├──
     │	├── index.html
     │	├── index.rst
     │	└── make.bat
     ├── my_proj/
     │	└── ...
     ├── tests/
     │	└── ...
     ├── benchmarks/
     │	└── ...
     ├── ...

We have used ... to denote miscellaneous files that are either unrelated to documentation, or which will be automatically generated (we won’t touch them).

  1. Navigate to your docs directory and run the sphinx quickstart

     $ mkdir docs
     $ cd docs
     $ sphinx-quickstart
  2. The quickstart will walk you through the various options. I normally accept all the defaults, but I make sure to enable autodoc when asked about it. For version numbers, for code-in-progress I usually start with low decimals like 0.1, with version 1.0 coming later as a release candidate (ready for public consumption), and major releases with new features, refactoring, or backwards-incompatible changes reserved for whole numbers (2.0, 2.0, etc).

  3. Add the following lines to the file, in order to include an explicit local path to the “core” folder of your module or library

     import os
     import sys
     sys.path.insert(0, os.path.abspath('../..'))
  4. Sphinx has many extensions, which are used to modify the style and extent of documentation. These can be activated/deactivated by changing the extensions variable in the file. Currently, my file contains the following lines:

     extensions = [

You can also modify other features of the configuration file. For example, to exclude certain files or directories from autodocumentation, you can edit the exclude_patterns variable in Currently mine looks like

exclude_patterns = ['_build', '_templates', 'Thumbs.db', '.DS_Store']

Finally, you can also tweak the visual appearance of your documentation by modifying the html_theme variable. Currently, I use the default theme, but many others exist

	html_theme = 'alabaster'
  1. GitHub Pages will ignore any files starting with an underscore. Depending on the contents of your .gitignore, files containing the name build may also be ignored. To avoid these issues, edit the contents of the sphinx Makefile to point to a new spbuild directory.

    BUILDDIR = spbuild

  2. Once the configuration is set up, Navigate in your terminal to the docs directory and run sphinx.

     $ make html

Sphinx should start attempting to render HTML from your project’s docstrings. If you run into an error, make sure that you are in the docs folder, and that the conda environment in which you install sphixn is currently active.

If all was successful, you should find the documentation rendered as an HTML file in the _build directory.

  1. We now want to host our project documentation using GitHub pages. Still within your docs directory, create a file that will tell GitHub pages to avoid attempting to re-render the HTML pages that sphinx just created. In the Terminal, run

     $ touch .nojekyll
  2. Add a new index.html to your docs directory that redirects to the index.html inside the new build directory. You can make this HTML file in VSCode or another text editor, or directly in the terminal with emacs or vim. In any case, index.html should contain only the following line

     <meta http-equiv="refresh" content="0; url=./spbuild/html/index.html" />

If you renamed your build folder in the previous step in order to get around your .gitignore restrictions, then you will need to rename it in the url here as well.

  1. Assuming that your project has a working GitHub repository, push all of your changes to the main branch on GitHub. In the GitHub UI, navigate to your project’s settings. These are usually found under a URL of the form

In this interface, make sure that “Source” is set to “Deploy from a Branch” and that the “Branch” is set as “main” followed by “/docs”. You can edit other settings from this page, if you want to use a custom domain or enforce various security settings. Once you have configured things, save your settings.

GitHub pages should now find your rendered sphinx HTML files, and (after some time delay), they will appear online at

Rebuilding documention

You can update your project’s documentation by re-running make html.

Delete all directories beginning with an underscore. Running make clean will delete everything under _build, but the output of extensions like autosummary will not be deleted, which can cause issues.

Using Read The Docs instead of GitHub Pages

For various reasons, you might prefer to host your project’s documentation on ReadTheDocs instead of GitHub. This can be accomplished by activating a Web Hook in the settings of the GitHub repository so that every commit will update the docs

If you are using a custom docstring style or otherwise have a dependency outside of core sphinx, then in the ReadTheDocs Project Admin page, enable virtualenv and include a requirements.txt file listing pypi packages such as:


Put this file in the root of the documentation, docs/. You may also get an ImportError with autodoc that requires you to put a copy of the repository’s in docs/. Why this is necessary is a profound and uninteresting mystery.


  1. Updating my documentation does not update my docs.
  • Sphinx builds from the module from the version that is installed in the environment. It does not use the current local; it uses whatever was most recently installed in the environment. See here
  • If make html isn’t picking up changes, try touching various .rst files

      $ touch index.rst
      $ touch mymodulename.rst
  • Try forcing a re-build

      $ sphinx-build -E -b html -d _build/doctrees   . _build/html
  • If all else fails, try deleting the current files inside the _build directory and re-running make html
  1. Sphinx is not finding the correct directory for documentation, or my documentation is empty
  • Edit the file to include an explicit absolute local path to the “core” folder of your module or library:

      import sys
      import os
      sys.path.insert(0, os.path.abspath('.'))
  • In the docs folder, manually edit index.rst to include the following lines

      .. toctree::
          :maxdepth: 2
          :caption: Contents:

Useful links

Sphinx for Dummies

Sphinx guide

Sphinx with GitHub Pages