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August 22, 2013 / carlispina

Getting Started with APIs

Today’s post is a bit of a departure from most of my posts here. Rather than discussing one particular tool, I am going to highlight several options for those who are interested in learning to work with APIs. The acronym API stands for Application Programming Interface and, as Wikipedia explains, an API “specifies how some software components should interact with each other“. As such, they can be used to create powerful applications that cause two different existing components to interact with one another in a  set way. For example, APIs can be used to create web applications that retrieve, manipulate, combine and display content from one or more other applications. Many popular web applications and social media tools, such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Evernote, to name just a few, offer APIs.

For those who are new to computer programming, APIs can seem intimidating, but there are several resources available to help with the learning curve. One such resource is Codecademy, which offers tutorials on how to use APIs with Ruby, Python and Javascript as well as short tutorials on using 25 different APIs. Ranging from serious functionality such as the API that provides access to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s data to more silly functionality, such as the PlaceKitten API, Codecademy’s tutorials offer lots of options for getting hands-on experience with APIs while also building working applications.

For those who prefer to learn to work with the Zotero API, The Programming Historian 2 has created a tutorial focused specifically on teaching humanists to use this API, in addition to offering a variety of other tutorials geared towards this particular audience. Finally, once you have worked your way through a step-by-step tutorial or two, you can try using the DPLA API, which offers documentation that will be approachable for those who are relatively new to using APIs.

Once you gain some comfort with the basic concepts required for working with APIs, they can be a great resource to help you jump from developing small applications to building more powerful web applications that make use of existing data and functionality without reinventing the wheel each time.

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