APIs and Serendipity


Have you heard of an API, or Application Programming Interface?  If not, it may not seem like something you want to hear about.  If you have, it might still be difficult to understand exactly what it is and why you should care.  In either case, you can still take advantage of APIs for teaching and research.

Simply, an API allows databases, applications, and interfaces to communicate.  A well known example is the Google Maps API, which allows users to embed maps into web pages or even to build onto the API to create new tools.  For example, I use GMap Pedometer to measure a run.  Google Maps made its API open to developers.  The GMap Pedometer developer took the API and built on it to create a new and useful product.  The key to APIs is that many are open to develops, encouraging creativity.  The fact that many are free promote a culture of openness and collaboration.

One example of a great tool available for research is Serendipomatic.  Created  over only one week at the One Week | One Tool Institute, scholars, programmers, web designers, librarians, students and museum professionals collaborated on this project that adds a little serendipity into the research process.   Simply add text to the box – a few words or an entire page – and Serendipomatic will search the Digital Public Library of America, Europeana, and Flickr Commons (all of whom have open content AND metadata).  The results are surprising, and may inspire you, offer new avenues for research, and/or suggest sources you may not have considered.   Give it a try!


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