The walking tour of rustdoc

Rustdoc actually uses the rustc internals directly. It lives in-tree with the compiler and standard library. This chapter is about how it works.

Rustdoc is implemented entirely within the crate librustdoc. It runs the compiler up to the point where we have an internal representation of a crate (HIR) and the ability to run some queries about the types of items. HIR and queries are discussed in the linked chapters.

librustdoc performs two major steps after that to render a set of documentation:

  • "Clean" the AST into a form that's more suited to creating documentation (and slightly more resistant to churn in the compiler).
  • Use this cleaned AST to render a crate's documentation, one page at a time.

Naturally, there's more than just this, and those descriptions simplify out lots of details, but that's the high-level overview.

(Side note: librustdoc is a library crate! The rustdoc binary is created using the project in src/tools/rustdoc. Note that literally all that does is call the main() that's in this crate's, though.)

Cheat sheet

  • Use ./ build --stage 1 src/libstd src/tools/rustdoc to make a usable rustdoc you can run on other projects.
    • Add src/libtest to be able to use rustdoc --test.
    • If you've used rustup toolchain link local /path/to/build/$TARGET/stage1 previously, then after the previous build command, cargo +local doc will Just Work.
  • Use ./ doc --stage 1 src/libstd to use this rustdoc to generate the standard library docs.
    • The completed docs will be available in build/$TARGET/doc/std, though the bundle is meant to be used as though you would copy out the doc folder to a web server, since that's where the CSS/JS and landing page are.
  • Most of the HTML printing code is in html/ and html/ It's in a bunch of fmt::Display implementations and supplementary functions.
  • The types that got Display impls above are defined in clean/, right next to the custom Clean trait used to process them out of the rustc HIR.
  • The bits specific to using rustdoc as a test harness are in
  • The Markdown renderer is loaded up in html/, including functions for extracting doctests from a given block of Markdown.
  • The tests on rustdoc output are located in src/test/rustdoc, where they're handled by the test runner of rustbuild and the supplementary script src/etc/
  • Tests on search index generation are located in src/test/rustdoc-js, as a series of JavaScript files that encode queries on the standard library search index and expected results.

From crate to clean

In are two central items: the DocContext struct, and the run_core function. The latter is where rustdoc calls out to rustc to compile a crate to the point where rustdoc can take over. The former is a state container used when crawling through a crate to gather its documentation.

The main process of crate crawling is done in clean/ through several implementations of the Clean trait defined within. This is a conversion trait, which defines one method:

pub trait Clean<T> {
    fn clean(&self, cx: &DocContext) -> T;

clean/ also defines the types for the "cleaned" AST used later on to render documentation pages. Each usually accompanies an implementation of Clean that takes some AST or HIR type from rustc and converts it into the appropriate "cleaned" type. "Big" items like modules or associated items may have some extra processing in its Clean implementation, but for the most part these impls are straightforward conversions. The "entry point" to this module is the impl Clean<Crate> for visit_ast::RustdocVisitor, which is called by run_core above.

You see, I actually lied a little earlier: There's another AST transformation that happens before the events in clean/ In is the type RustdocVisitor, which actually crawls a hir::Crate to get the first intermediate representation, defined in This pass is mainly to get a few intermediate wrappers around the HIR types and to process visibility and inlining. This is where #[doc(inline)], #[doc(no_inline)], and #[doc(hidden)] are processed, as well as the logic for whether a pub use should get the full page or a "Reexport" line in the module page.

The other major thing that happens in clean/ is the collection of doc comments and #[doc=""] attributes into a separate field of the Attributes struct, present on anything that gets hand-written documentation. This makes it easier to collect this documentation later in the process.

The primary output of this process is a clean::Crate with a tree of Items which describe the publicly-documentable items in the target crate.

Hot potato

Before moving on to the next major step, a few important "passes" occur over the documentation. These do things like combine the separate "attributes" into a single string and strip leading whitespace to make the document easier on the markdown parser, or drop items that are not public or deliberately hidden with #[doc(hidden)]. These are all implemented in the passes/ directory, one file per pass. By default, all of these passes are run on a crate, but the ones regarding dropping private/hidden items can be bypassed by passing --document-private-items to rustdoc. Note that unlike the previous set of AST transformations, the passes happen on the cleaned crate.

(Strictly speaking, you can fine-tune the passes run and even add your own, but we're trying to deprecate that. If you need finer-grain control over these passes, please let us know!)

Here is current (as of this writing) list of passes:

  • propagate-doc-cfg - propagates #[doc(cfg(...))] to child items.
  • collapse-docs concatenates all document attributes into one document attribute. This is necessary because each line of a doc comment is given as a separate doc attribute, and this will combine them into a single string with line breaks between each attribute.
  • unindent-comments removes excess indentation on comments in order for markdown to like it. This is necessary because the convention for writing documentation is to provide a space between the /// or //! marker and the text, and stripping that leading space will make the text easier to parse by the Markdown parser. (In the past, the markdown parser used was not Commonmark- compliant, which caused annoyances with extra whitespace but this seems to be less of an issue today.)
  • strip-priv-imports strips all private import statements (use, extern crate) from a crate. This is necessary because rustdoc will handle public imports by either inlining the item's documentation to the module or creating a "Reexports" section with the import in it. The pass ensures that all of these imports are actually relevant to documentation.
  • strip-hidden and strip-private strip all doc(hidden) and private items from the output. strip-private implies strip-priv-imports. Basically, the goal is to remove items that are not relevant for public documentation.

From clean to crate

This is where the "second phase" in rustdoc begins. This phase primarily lives in the html/ folder, and it all starts with run() in html/ This code is responsible for setting up the Context, SharedContext, and Cache which are used during rendering, copying out the static files which live in every rendered set of documentation (things like the fonts, CSS, and JavaScript that live in html/static/), creating the search index, and printing out the source code rendering, before beginning the process of rendering all the documentation for the crate.

Several functions implemented directly on Context take the clean::Crate and set up some state between rendering items or recursing on a module's child items. From here the "page rendering" begins, via an enormous write!() call in html/ The parts that actually generate HTML from the items and documentation occurs within a series of std::fmt::Display implementations and functions that pass around a &mut std::fmt::Formatter. The top-level implementation that writes out the page body is the impl<'a> fmt::Display for Item<'a> in html/, which switches out to one of several item_* functions based on the kind of Item being rendered.

Depending on what kind of rendering code you're looking for, you'll probably find it either in html/ for major items like "what sections should I print for a struct page" or html/ for smaller component pieces like "how should I print a where clause as part of some other item".

Whenever rustdoc comes across an item that should print hand-written documentation alongside, it calls out to html/ which interfaces with the Markdown parser. This is exposed as a series of types that wrap a string of Markdown, and implement fmt::Display to emit HTML text. It takes special care to enable certain features like footnotes and tables and add syntax highlighting to Rust code blocks (via html/ before running the Markdown parser. There's also a function in here (find_testable_code) that specifically scans for Rust code blocks so the test-runner code can find all the doctests in the crate.

From soup to nuts

(alternate title: "An unbroken thread that stretches from those first Cells to us")

It's important to note that the AST cleaning can ask the compiler for information (crucially, DocContext contains a TyCtxt), but page rendering cannot. The clean::Crate created within run_core is passed outside the compiler context before being handed to html::render::run. This means that a lot of the "supplementary data" that isn't immediately available inside an item's definition, like which trait is the Deref trait used by the language, needs to be collected during cleaning, stored in the DocContext, and passed along to the SharedContext during HTML rendering. This manifests as a bunch of shared state, context variables, and RefCells.

Also of note is that some items that come from "asking the compiler" don't go directly into the DocContext - for example, when loading items from a foreign crate, rustdoc will ask about trait implementations and generate new Items for the impls based on that information. This goes directly into the returned Crate rather than roundabout through the DocContext. This way, these implementations can be collected alongside the others, right before rendering the HTML.

Other tricks up its sleeve

All this describes the process for generating HTML documentation from a Rust crate, but there are couple other major modes that rustdoc runs in. It can also be run on a standalone Markdown file, or it can run doctests on Rust code or standalone Markdown files. For the former, it shortcuts straight to html/, optionally including a mode which inserts a Table of Contents to the output HTML.

For the latter, rustdoc runs a similar partial-compilation to get relevant documentation in, but instead of going through the full clean and render process, it runs a much simpler crate walk to grab just the hand-written documentation. Combined with the aforementioned "find_testable_code" in html/, it builds up a collection of tests to run before handing them off to the libtest test runner. One notable location in is the function make_test, which is where hand-written doctests get transformed into something that can be executed.

Some extra reading about make_test can be found here.

Dotting i's and crossing t's

So that's rustdoc's code in a nutshell, but there's more things in the repo that deal with it. Since we have the full compiletest suite at hand, there's a set of tests in src/test/rustdoc that make sure the final HTML is what we expect in various situations. These tests also use a supplementary script, src/etc/, that allows it to look through the final HTML using XPath notation to get a precise look at the output. The full description of all the commands available to rustdoc tests is in

In addition, there are separate tests for the search index and rustdoc's ability to query it. The files in src/test/rustdoc-js each contain a different search query and the expected results, broken out by search tab. These files are processed by a script in src/tools/rustdoc-js and the Node.js runtime. These tests don't have as thorough of a writeup, but a broad example that features results in all tabs can be found in basic.js. The basic idea is that you match a given QUERY with a set of EXPECTED results, complete with the full item path of each item.