Linking

Sphinx turns links into structure, which turns out to be very valuable.

Websites have links, of course, and static site generators can generate those links for you. It turns out to be very helpful. For example, a correctly-relative link will be generated to the target, from the source -- which isn't as easy as it sounds.

Sphinx, though, takes linking to a different level. It gathers all the resources in your site and makes, essentially, a big tree. This tree goes beyond the document itself, letting targets within documents be link targets. With this, linking becomes trivial, convenient, and less error-prone. And more feature-ful.

Let's take a look at how this works, then show it in Markdown.

How Sphinx Linking Works

Imagine a Sphinx site, in RST, with two documents in it: first.rst and second.rst. You want to link from one to the other, right in the middle of your text. In Sphinx with RST, you would type in the first document:

More information is available in :doc:`second`.

Sphinx then generates the link "Wait!" you say. "There's no link text?"

Indeed, that's true, and it's part of the power of Sphinx: it keeps a "database" of everything in your site. When you made the link above, Sphinx:

  • Found the document at the path second (without the .rst suffix)
  • If it didn't exist, Sphinx would complain
  • It fetched the target's title and used that as the link text.

In comparison to other "blogging" static site generators, this is a big deal. Of course, Sphinx has variations on this:

  • You can use relative paths in your separator.
  • If you want to supply your own link text, that's ok too.

Beyond these simple variations, Sphinx brings more big tools to the game. First, you include documents into the "tree" using a "table of contents" directive. For example, a folder at /some/folder/index.rst might have the following:

.. toctree::
:maxdepth: 2
intro
strings
datatypes

These list the items in that "folder", providing an order, with links to each item. The table of contents is then rendered into a nicely-styled list, right there in the doc. Not only that, the ToC will look into each file (hence the maxdepth) and provide links to the substructure.

This is an immensely powerful and customizable facility. Like all other things in Sphinx, it generates links for HTML, PDF, and the other targets.

Markdown Linking

If that's how linking works with RST, how about Markdown? In short: wonderfully. MyST has, through a few iterations, arrived at several Markdown-friendly ways to express Sphinx linking.

In the simplest, most-normal Markdown, we might link in index to about_us:

More information about Schlockchain is available in [About Us](about_us).

Looks just like Markdown. It has the benefit, from Sphinx, that you will get yelled at if the target at about_us doesn't exist. Of course, the link will work in PDF output.

We lost, though, that other cool benefit: getting the title from the target document for the link text. How do we get that back?

More information about Schlockchain is available in [](about_us).

Leave the link text out of the [] and you're telling Sphinx to supply it for you.

Headings and Roles

Some might not want to think in terms of filenames and relative paths to directories. In fact, some might not want to think of "files" at all, and instead, consider locations within a document to be targets for links.

Sphinx has the concept of roles to describe link targets. With this, you put site-unique labels somewhere in a document, then anything can link to it.

In the above example, imagine the document about_us.md had the following:

(investors)=
## Investors
Our investors are very proud to be involved with us.

You don't really want to link to the document: you want to link to that part of the document. This is a job for Sphinx roles and you can use these with Markdown syntax. Add the following in index.md:

You can also visit our {ref}`investors`.

Sphinx will do the following:

  • Find the role definition at (investors)=
  • Warn if it doesn't exist
  • Get link text from the heading after the role
  • Generate a link to that document, but with...
  • ...an internal anchor to scroll down to that heading.

With regular -- that is, "non-role" -- links, you could override the link text instead of using the target's title. That's supported in role-based linking as well.

Automatically Create Section Targets

It's nice to link to documents and get the automation that goes with it. Same for linking to manually-provided roles atop section headings.

Want to skip manually preceding headings with role definitions? There's a MyST setting for that. With this, Sphinx and MyST will automatically generate a role based on the text of the heading.

Other Links

This is already a powerful set of features. But really, :download: (from the previous tutorial step) and :ref: are just examples of the role machinery. Much more can be done with linking.

Have some content that is repeated across files, and you'd like to include it? MyST supports including Markdown from another file.

Sphinx is most known for documentation via autodoc, which generates roles that can then be linked to with special syntax. We will show this in the next tutorial step.

We mentioned toctree above. It makes "files" into "documents" in a "doctree". Which means, Sphinx has links available to go to previous and next targets.

Finally, want to see if all your links are good? Run make linkcheck.