Dan Cohen

Do APIs Have a Place in the Digital Humanities?
Posted to Digital Humanities: Theory & Practice on 21 November 2005, 7:31 PM EST

Digital Humanities: Theory & PracticeSince the 1960s, computer scientists have used application programming interfaces (APIs) to provide colleagues with robust, direct access to their databases and digital tools. Access via APIs is generally far more powerful than simple web-based access. APIs often include complex methods drawn from programming languages—precise ways of choosing materials to extract, methods to generate statistics, ways of searching, culling, and pulling together disparate data—that enable outside users to develop their own tools or information resources based on the work of others. In short, APIs hold great promise as a method for combining and manipulating various digital resources and tools in a free-form and potent way.

Unfortunately, even after four decades APIs remain much more common in the sciences and the commercial realm—for example, the APIs provided by search behemoths Google and Yahoo—than in the humanities. There are some obvious reasons for this disparity. By supplying an API, the owners of a resource or tool generally bear most of the cost (on their taxed servers, in technical support and staff time) while receiving little or no (immediate) benefit. Moreover, by essentially making an end-run around the common or "official" ways of accessing a tool or project (such as a web search form for a digital archive), an API may devalue the hard work and thoughtfulness put into the more public front end for a digital project. It is perhaps unsurprising that given these costs even Google and Yahoo, which have the financial strength and personnel to provide APIs for their search engines, continue to keep these programs hobbled—after all, programmers can use their APIs to create derivative search engines that compete directly with Google's or Yahoo's results pages, with none of the diverting (and profitable) text advertising.

So why should projects in the digital humanities provide APIs, especially given their often limited (or nonexistent) funding compared to a Google or Yahoo? The reason IBM conceived APIs in the first place, and still today the reason many computer scientists find APIs highly beneficial, is that unlike other forms of access they encourage the kind of energetic and creative grass-roots and third-party development that in the long run—after the initial costs borne by the APIís owner—maximize the value and utility of a digital resource or tool. Motivated by many different goals and employing many different methodologies, users of APIs often take digital resources or tools in directions completely unforeseen by their owners. APIs have provided fertile ground for thousands of developers to experiment with the tremendous indices and document caches maintained by Google and Yahoo. New resources based on these APIs appear weekly, some of them hinting at new methods for digital research, data visualization techniques, and novel ways to data-mine texts and synthesize knowledge.

Is it possible—and worthwhile—for digital humanities projects to provide such APIs for their resources and tools? Which resources or tools would be best suited for an API, and how will the creators of these projects sustain such an additional burden? And are there other forms of access or interoperability that have equal or greater benefits with fewer associated costs?

xml Subscribe to this blog

Comments or questions? Contact me. [Editor's note: This blog post was written before August 2007, when I converted this blog from my own blogging software to WordPress and added commenting to the end of posts.]

Visit this blog's home page for the latest posts.