Charming Python #18: pydoc And distutils

Improving the Social Infrastructure of Python

David Mertz, Ph.D.
Auteur Provocateur, Gnosis Software, Inc.
June, 2001

Several modules and tools introduced in recent versions of Python have improved Python not so much as a language, but as a tool. The modules discussed in this column make the job of Python developers substantially easier by improving the documentation and distribution of Python modules and packages.
KEYWORDS: documentation installation distribution pydoc doctest distutils Python modules packages

What Is Python?

Python is a freely available, very-high-level, interpreted language developed by Guido van Rossum. It combines a clear syntax with powerful (but optional) object-oriented semantics. Python is available for almost every computer platform you might find yourself working on, and has strong portability between platforms.


One year ago, if you were to ask an honest Python evangelist if Python was missing anything important that Perl, for example, had, she would have to fess up an affirmative answer. It wasn't that Python lacked a breadth of module and package support--both Python native and extension modules. It certainly wasn't the clarity of expression or clean object orientation in which Python positively excels. What Python was missing was what Perl developers describe as "social factors." But even here, the missing social factors were not an absence of an active, intelligent and supportive Python community--Python has abounded in that. What the Python of one year ago sorely lacked was a sufficient programmatic infrastructure for the sharing of Python code. Code sharing was ad hoc, decentralized, and just plain too much work in the general case.

The first step in improving the social infrastructure of Python was probably Tim Middleton's creation of the Vaults of Parnassus (see Resources). For the first time, Python developers had a single place to turn for (nearly) all contributed third-party modules, packages and tools. The Vaults still have their quirks that make them possibly less advanced (but nicer looking) than the Comprehensive Perl Archive Network. The Vaults merely point to actual resources rather than mirroring them; the Vaults are manually maintained by Middleton, and updates are sometimes slow to happen; and who generously hosts the Vaults has had intermittent outages. But overall, the service provided by the Vaults of Parnassus has been an invaluable resource in building the architectural prerequisites of a strong Python community.

With such a common site available, all the Python community needed was consistent and solid ways of installing all these available modules, packages and tools; and equally clear ways of figuring out just what they did. To the rescue came several new standard modules in the standard Python distribution..


Ka-Ping Yee has created a quite remarkable module by the name pydoc (for the "competition": pydoc does everything that perldoc does, but better and prettier :-)). As of Python 2.1, pydoc (and its supporting inspect) is part of the standard library. However, for users of Python 1.5.2, 1.6 or 2.0, downloading and installing pydoc is extremely easy--do so right away (see Resources).

By way of background for any Python beginners reading this, Python has long had some semi-formal documentation standards. These standards have not attempted to contrain developers unduly, but rather simply to seem like the "one obvious way to do it." Fortunately, Python developers, as a rule, have always been far better documenters than typical developers in other languages.

The main element of good Python documentation is the use of so-called "docstrings." While a docstring is really just a variable called _doc_, there is a ubiquitous shortcut for creating them: just put a bare (triple-)quoted string at the very beginning of a module, function def, class definition, or method def. As well, there are several more-or-less standard module-level "magic" variable names that are often used. Despite the informality of the documentation rules, almost all 3rd party and standard modules use the same patterns. Let's look at a simplistic example that has most of the elements used:

Module with typical documentation


"""Show off features of [pydoc] module

This is a silly module to
demonstrate docstrings
__author__ = 'David Mertz'
__version__= '1.0'
__nonsense__ = 'jabberwocky'

class MyClass:
    """Demonstrate class docstrings"""
    def __init__(self, spam=1, eggs=2):
        """Set default attribute values only

        Keyword arguments:
        spam -- a processed meat product
        eggs -- a fine breakfast for lumberjacks
        self.spam = spam
        self.eggs = eggs

The pydoc module takes advantage of Python documentation conventions, as well as having some savvy about Python imports, inheritance, and the like. Moreover, pydoc has the absolute genius of allowing itself to be used in multiple modes of operation. More on this shortly; for a few moments I'll look at the manpage style usage at an OS command-line.

Let's say you had the above module mymod installed on your system, but weren't sure what it was for (not much in the example). You might read the source, but even easier might be:

Getting 'manpage' style documentation

% mymod
Python Library Documentation: module mymod

    mymod - Show off features of [pydoc] module


    This is a silly module to
    demonstrate docstrings


    class MyClass
     |  Demonstrate class docstrings
     |  __init__(self, spam=1, eggs=2)
     |      Set default attribute values only
     |      Keyword arguments:
     |      spam -- a processed meat product
     |      eggs -- a fine breakfast for lumberjacks

    __author__ = 'David Mertz'
    __file__ = './mymod.pyc'
    __name__ = 'mymod'
    __nonsense__ = 'jabberwocky'
    __version__ = '1.0'


    David Mertz

Depending on your specific platform and setup, the above sample will probably be presented in a text viewer that allows scrolling, searching, and so on, and with some highlighting of key words. For something this simple, what you get is only slightly better than just reading the source, but consider something as as simple as:

Examining the inheritance structure of a class

% cat
from mymod import MyClass

class MyClass2(MyClass):
    """Child class"""
    def foo(self):

% mymod2.MyClass2
Python Library Documentation: class MyClass2 in mymod2

class MyClass2(mymod.MyClass)
 |  Child class
 |  __init__(self, spam=1, eggs=2) from mymod.MyClass
 |  foo(self)

In this quick report we can tell not only that MyClass2 has the methods __init__() and foo() (and the arguments thereto), but also which methods are implemented locally, and which other methods come from ancestors (and where those ancestors live).

Another nice manpage like feature is the -k option for searching modules for keywords. For example:

Locating the right module for a task

% -k uuencode
uu - Implementation of the UUencode and UUdecode functions.

% uu
Python Library Documentation: module uu

    uu - Implementation of the UUencode and UUdecode functions.

Besides its command-line usage, pydoc has four other "modes" that can present the same generated documentation.

Shell mode Inside the Python interactive shell, you may import pydoc's help() function, and get assistance on any object without leaving the interactive session. You can also just type help by itself to get into an interactive "help interpreter." For example:
#------- Interactive shell with help enhancements -------# >>> from pydoc import help >>> import uu >>> help(uu.test) Help on function test in module uu:
test() uuencode/uudecode main program
>>> help
Welcome to Python 2.0! This is the online help utility. ...introductory message about help shell... help>
Webserver mode Just use the -p option, and pydoc will launch itself as a simple webserver on LOCALHOST. You can use any web browser to browse all the modules installed on the current system. The homepage for this server is a list of modules, grouped by directory (and with attractive color blocks for browsers supporting that). Moreover, every module whose documentation you view becomes generously littered with links to any modules, functions and methods it imports.
HTML generator mode The -w option can generate an HTML documentation page for anything pydoc can document. Pretty much, these pages are the same thing you might browse in webserver mode, but the pages are static and available for archiving, transmission, etc.
TK browser mode The -g option will create a "graphical help browser," much along the lines of xman or tkman.


As of Python 1.6, a package called distutils has become part of the standard Python library. There are two aspects to what distutils does. On the one side, distutils hopes to make installation of new modules, packages, and tools uniform and easy for end-users. On the other side, distutils also hopes to make the creation of these easy-to-install distributions easy on their developers. Let's look at both aspects briefly.

In the very simplest case, a developer will have chosen to create an installer for your specific platform. If this is the case, you really don't need to know that anything called distutils exists at all. Currently, distutils is capable of creating RPMs for those Linux systems that support that format, and Windows EXE self-installers for Win32 systems. While these are big players, other platforms exist also and/or the developer might have had access to your platform (or the time or interest in making an installer).

Fortunately, short of the simplest case, the next best case is hardly any more difficult. Assuming you get a distutils aware source distribution, you can count on a number of things (if nothing goes wrong, of course). The distribution archive should be in a standard archive format--usually either .zip or .tgz / .tar.gz (in odd cases you might find .tbz or tar.Z, and hopefully .sit support will be added for MacOS soon). Most of the time, Windows users use zip's and Linux/Unix users use tarballs. But it is not hard to unpack most formats on most platforms. Once you have unpacked the archive, you'll get a collection of files in a directory named in the same fashion as the archive was. For example:

Unpacking a [distutils] archive

E:\archive\devel>unzip -q
E:\archive\devel>cd Distutils-1.0.2

The volume label in drive E is ARCHIVE.
The Volume Serial Number is E825:C814.
Directory of E:\archive\devel\Distutils-1.0.2

 6-14-01   0:38a     <DIR>           0  .
 6-14-01   0:38a     <DIR>           0  ..
 5-03-01   6:30p     15355           0  CHANGES.txt
 5-03-01   6:32p     <DIR>           0  distutils
 5-03-01   6:32p     <DIR>           0  doc
 5-03-01   6:32p     <DIR>           0  examples
10-02-00  11:47p       373           0
 5-03-01   6:32p     <DIR>           0  misc
 5-03-01   6:32p       496           0  PKG-INFO
 4-20-01   2:30p     14407           0  README.txt
 6-29-00  11:45p      1615           0  setup.cfg
 5-03-01   6:17p      1120           0
 4-20-01   2:29p      9116           0  TODO
 4-11-00   9:40p       836           0  USAGE.txt

Most module distributions will have fewer files and directories than this one. The only thing you really need is the file, which contains instructions for the install. Realistically though, one hopes that there are some other files in the directory so that has something to install. From here, all you need to do is:

E:\archive\devel\Distutils-1.0.2> python install

At least that should be all you need to do. If something goes wrong, read the README.txt or README file which is likely to be included. And after that, check out Greg Ward's "Installing Python Modules" (see Resources).

But what is going on "under the hood?" As you can guess from the name, is really just a plain Python script, so it can do anything when it runs. But in almost all cases, will have a pretty stereotypical form. It might look something like:

Minimal installation script

#!/usr/bin/env python

"""Setup script for the sample #1 module distribution:
   single top-level pure Python module, named explicitly
   in 'py_modules'."""

from distutils.core import setup

setup (# Distribution meta-data
       name = "sample",
       version = "1.0",
       description = "Distutils sample distribution #1",

       # Description of modules and packages in the distribution
       py_modules = ['sample'],

The real work here is performed by the imported distutils, specifically by the setup() function. Basically, setup() takes a bunch of named arguments, including a list of things to install (besides py_modules, there might be packages or ext_modules or some other things).

The magic of distutils is that creating a module distribution uses the very same file as installing it does. Once you--the module developer--have created a script (and maybe 'setup.cfg or other adjuncts) that specifies what needs to get installed, all you need to do to create the distribution is (one or more of the following):

% python sdist
% python bdist_wininst
% python bdist_rpm

Depending on which specific distribution you specify, you will create either a standard archive (tarball or zip file, depending on platform) or a full installer (as discussed above).


We are not quite there yet, but Python is getting to be not just one of the easiest to use programming languages, but also one of the easiest to use programming communities. Some of these new tools still have one or two kinks to iron out still, but in a general way, everything one needs to make Python "transparent" to users has been put in place.


The Vaults of Parnassus:

If you are using a version of Python earlier than 2.1, you can still obtain pydoc from:

You will also need to pick up the supporting inspect module:

Python documentation conventions are discussed in Guido van Rossum's Python Style Guide:

Some enhancements to Python documentation conventions have recently been proposed in Python Enhancment Proposals (PEPs) 256, 257 and 258. These may or may not become part of future Python versions, but it might be interesting to look at the ideas at:

Another new module that helps in assuring the quality and correctness of documentation is doctest. The basic purpose of this module is to allow automatic evaluation and verification of the interactive session behavior that is often pictured within docstrings. Read the module documentation at:

The latest distutils can be found at the below link. For most user of Python 1.6+, it is easiest to stick with the version of distutils that came with Python. But users of Python 1.5.x would do well to download this important package from:

Greg Ward's Installing Python Modules is a good introduction to the end-user of distutils. If you download a current Python documentation set, you get a version of this document. But the current version of the document should probably be at:

Greg Ward has also written Distributing Python Modules which discusses distutils from the point-of-view a module developer. It can also be found in the current Python documentation; and also at:

About The Author

Picture of Author David believes that each developer should contribute according to her ability and receive support according to her need. David may be reached at [email protected]; his life pored over at Suggestions and recommendations on this, past, or future, columns are welcomed.