Workshop on Application Programming Interfaces for the Digital Humanities

Scroll this

Social scientists and humanists in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom are well-served by online access to library catalogues and archival finding aids, repositories of digital sources, research software, teaching and outreach websites, and strategic clusters of networked scholars. Canadian examples include exemplary projects like, the online Dictionary of Canadian BiographyTAPoR (Text Analysis Portal for Research), Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History and NiCHE: Network in Canadian History & Environment.

To date, however, most of these resources have been developed with human-friendly web interfaces. This makes it easy for individual researchers to access material from one site at a time, while hindering the kind of machine-to-machine exchange that is required for record linkage across repositories, text and data mining initiatives, geospatial analysis, advanced visualization, or social computing. One of the key challenges facing researchers who work at the intersection of computing and the social sciences and humanities is a lack of application programming interfaces (APIs) for the sites which comprise our digital cultural heritage. An API is a web service. It receives requests made by computer programs and responds with packets of data. By drawing on the services of more than one API, it is relatively easy to write computer programs which can mobilize and integrate knowledge on the fly, to create something new. These programs are colloquially known as ‘mashups’.

As each new API comes online, the number of potential new web applications grows rapidly. If the Dictionary of Canadian Biography had an API, for example, one might use the Google Maps API to map people’s place of birth or death by decade. If had an API, too, one could automatically link biographical essays in the DCB to online versions of sources listed in the bibliography of each. If American and British biographical dictionaries had APIs, one could trace transatlantic connections between individuals and families. And so on. The creation of a level of infrastructure which allows data and services to be reused and remixed allows a combinatorial explosion of products at the next level. This can easily be seen in the case of commercial APIs like Google Maps, which have given rise to a steadily increasing number of new and unforeseen uses (for more, see Programmable Web).

The Workshop on APIs for the Digital Humanities gathered researchers and programmers from some of the key online projects in Canada, the US and the UK, to develop a strategy for providing APIs that mesh seamlessly with one another, expose data that has remained inaccessible until now, and provide a platform for a new generation of online research.

Organized by:

The workshop was attended by researchers, programmers and librarians from the US, Canada and the UK. Workshop activities were also supplemented by people following along on Twitter and Google Wave.

Generous Funding Provided by:

  • SSHRC via an Image, Text, Sound and Technology workshop grant.

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.