WDL, DPLA, APIs and YOU: Doing Stuff with Digital Collections

The space where the digital and the library intersect is fraught with acronyms [though if you want to get technical–and I KNOW you do–mostly initialisms], and, OMG, so is this blog post. But have no fear, we’ll get through this together.

Recently, the LOC (that’s the Library of Congress) published on their digital preservation blog, The Signal, a post about digital collections and APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). In addition to providing an overview of APIs, the post features an interview with Chris Adams, LOC IT specialist and the BAMF behind WDL‘s API.

What’s an API?

Before you get all LOLWUT, let’s start at the beginning; the definition of an API. An API is a set of protocols for building applications within a specific system, such as an operating system, database, or the web. In the context of digital collections, the API provided by the hosting collection allows individuals to create their own web-based programs that interact in different ways with the content of the collections.

World Digital Library, or WDL, is a LOC-based project supported by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization) that provides open, multilingual access to significant primary materials from around the world.


WDL Homepage as of 1/29/2016

You can find information about the WDL’s API here. While “back in the day,” institutions needed to develop their own APIs, standardized APIs such as OpenSearch make it much easier for smaller or cash-strapped cultural institutions to make their digital collections widely available. WDL has put its weight behind IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework), an initiative dedicated to producing “an interoperable technology and community framework for image delivery” (read more here) that would allow users richer, more uniform access to digital image collections.

What can APIs do?

To see some of the things IIIF APIs have done, take a look at the showcase; we’re going to take a closer look at Mirador and OpenSeadragon.

Mirador is an “Open-source, web based, multi-window image viewing platform with the ability to zoom, display, compare and annotate images from around the world.” Check out the Mirador Demo and give it a try! The LOC blog post has a walkthrough for how to play around with Mirador using WDL’s collections.

Mirador Walkthrough

You’re not limited to using the images suggested above. Head to the WDL homepage and search for whatever your heart desires. Narrow your search to photographs by clicking on “Prints, Photographs” under “Type of Item” in the left sidebar.

dogs search

I searched for “dogs” and then “animals” (because “cats” yielded nothing; I guess WDL’s contributing institutions are dog people). Here is what my Mirador Viewer looked like.

OpenSeadragon is “an open-source, web-based viewer for high-resolution zoomable images” that is already being used by numerous institutions of diverse scope. Here are some projects using OpenSeadragon that are definitely worth checking out:

Is it really obvious that I have a thing for companion animals?


Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Hamlet (cat)” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed February 3, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47de-ea0c-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

(But seriously, I love that this was part of the Billy Rose Theatre photograph collection. Further, it should be noted that Hamlet the Cat is one of over 30,ooo personalities NYPL [New York Public Library] has identified in that collection of photographs.)

Enough with the cats! What are other institutions doing with APIs?

The DPLA (Digital Public Library of America) is, like WDL, a digital library whose content is aggregated from the digital collections of contributing American cultural institutions. They also have made their API available, but the DPLA is exceptional for the support they throw behind developers/researchers/institutions/regular people who want to use it, including tutorials, sample code, project idea sharing, and a glossary, to give but a few example. Their App Library demonstrates some of the projects that have been made using the DPLA API. Some cool ones:

Moar API links pls.

You got it.

Here are a few noteworthy digital collections and links to their APIs

Powerhouse Museum

The Powerhouse Museum is the main branch of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, Australia. The Powerhouse is a old name in the publicly-available museum API game; v.1 of their API was released in 2010 (this article documents a hackathon in which several cool projects used the newly-released API)

Check out the Powerhouse Museum API here.

New York Public Library

IMO, NYPL is, has always been, and will always be on the cutting edge of everything “library.” Is this an exaggeration? Maybe. But only a little. On January 5th, 2016, they announced that out-of-copyright materials in the NYPL digital collections are now available as a simple download, no permissions required.

This is huge generally, but it also affects the NYPL API, “enabling bulk use and analysis, as well as data exports and utilities posted to NYPL’s GitHub account.”

Check out NYPL Labs to see some of the cool projects that have used NYPL’s API and to see proof that my introductory sentence about NYPL is correct.

Europeana Collections

Europeana Collections is a portal for searching digital collections about European history and culture from contributing institutions across Europe. Though still in beta, the multimedia collections are diverse and robust. Europeana Labs is the forward-thinking, digital “brain trust” behind the site, and it offers an array of resources for helping developers create “resources for using and building with cultural collections.” Their website has links to the APIs, and an apps showcase, demonstrating very cool projects that make use of these resources.

Many Others

There’s definitely not enough room here for me to link every cultural institution’s API, but you can search for them yourself with ProgrammableWeb’s API Directory. You can search by category, protocol, or by typing in the search bar on the upper right. The “museum” category has a lot of really great results, for example.

While this post has been just a very broad overview of APIs and the things you can do with them, if you’re interested in learning more about APIs and how to use them, you can always check out API University, which has links to free information on best practices, tutorials, tips and tricks for both users and providers.

TL;DR: APIs are super useful for facilitating and bolstering access to digital collections.

TYVM and I’ll TTYL.