Best practices in software engineering

Appendix: Generating documentation web pages

Providing documentation for your functions inside the Python Console is a useful thing to do but it's expected of most publicly published projects to also have a web-browsable version as well. There is a tool for Python called Sphinx which does exactly that.

Make sure Sphinx is installed. Test in the Terminal that sphinx-build exists by running it and checking that it returns the message:

sphinx-build: error: the following arguments are required: sourcedir, outputdir, filenames

If it is not installed then either:

  • install it into the base environment through Anaconda Navigator
  • or create a new environment, install both jupyterlab and sphinx and then restart JupyterLab in that environment.

Open up the terminal and make sure that you are in the correct directory. You can check this by running ls if you are on Linux or MacOS or dir if you are running Windows. You should see listed in the output.

We are now going to create a set of Sphinx configuration files. Sphinx provides a tool called sphinx-quickstart for this purpose which will ask you a few questions and create all the files it needs. In the Terminal, type:


and answer the questions it asks in the following way:

  • n to Separate source and build directories
  • Set the project name to Arrays
  • Enter your name as the Author name
  • Just press enter for Project release
  • Just press enter for Project language

After that it should return you to the Terminal prompt.

Now that we have the configuration for Sphinx set up, run make html which will go ahead and generate the documentation and create some HTML files on your computer. To find out where they went, run the following in the Python Console:

import os

That will print out something like file:///home/matt/bestpractices/_build/html/index.html. Copy and paste that into the URL bar in your web browser and it should bring up the documentation. It should look like:

Arrays documentation


Add some text (it doesn't matter too much what you write) between the toctree block and Indices and tables in index.rst. Make sure that it is not indented at all. Regenerate the documentation pages with make html and refresh your web browser. You should see the text appear. answer

Adding our documentation to Sphinx

In order for our function and module documentation to show up in the HTML pages we need to make a few tweaks to the Sphinx configuration.

First we need to enable the autodoc extension so that Sphinx can create documentation pages from Python source code and the napoleon extension so that it understands the Google-style docstrings. Open (it's a normal Python file) and find the extensions variable. It will be defined to be an empty list. Edit it so that it reads:

extensions = [

The other change we need to make in is is to allow Sphinx to import our arrays module. To allow this it needs to have the current directory in its search path. Find on lines 13, 14, and 15 the lines that read:

# import os
# import sys
# sys.path.insert(0, os.path.abspath('.'))

and uncomment them so that they look like:

import os
import sys
sys.path.insert(0, os.path.abspath('.'))

This is all the configuration changes we need to make. We're now ready to tell Sphinx about our module. To do this we will put some special code in a file called arrays.rst whcih Sphinx will interpret to find our source code and documentation.

Create a new files called arrays.rst and put the following:

arrays module

.. automodule:: arrays

Then edit the toctree directive in index.rst to look like:

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


being careful to check that the indentation is correct and lines up.

Run make html once more and refresh the documentation HTML page. On the main page, click "arrays module". This will take you to the page with the documentation. It should look like:

Arrays documentation

You'll see here that the module docstring is shown at the top, followed by the documentation for the function. It's formatted the parameters and return types nicely and has even highlighted the example as Python code.

Sphinx is by far the most commonly used documentation tool for Python projects. It's even used by the official Python documentation. If you have your Python project hosted at a publicly visible Git hosting site like GitHub, GitLab or Bitbucket, there is a free service called Read The Docs which can build and host your pages for you.

When using Git or any other version control software, you should make sure you check in your documentation sources alongside your code. For Sphinx, make sure you add, any rst files you create manually and the "make" files. Do not commit to Git any HTML output from running Sphinx.