Getting Started with APIs

Thursday, May 1

There has been a lot of discussion in the library community regarding the use of web service APIs over the past few years. While APIs can be very powerful and provide awesome new ways to share, promote, manipulate and mashup your library’s data, getting started using APIs can be overwhelming. This post is intended to provide a very basic overview of the technologies and terminology involved with web service APIs, and provides a brief example to get started using the Twitter API.

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by Lauren Magnuson

There has been a lot of discussion in the library community regarding the use of web service APIs over the past few years. While APIs can be very powerful and provide awesome new ways to share, promote, manipulate and mashup your library’s data, getting started using APIs can be overwhelming. This post is intended to provide a very basic overview of the technologies and terminology involved with web service APIs, and provides a brief example to get started using the Twitter API.

What is an API?
First, some definitions. One of the steepest learning curves with APIs involves navigating the terminology, which unfortunately can be rather dense – but understanding a few key concepts makes a huge difference:

API stands for Application Programming Interface, which is a specification used by software components to communicate with each other. If (when?) computers become self-aware, they could use APIs to retrieve information, tweet, post status updates, and essentially run most day-to-do functions for the machine uprising. There is no single API “standard” though one of the most common methods of interacting with APIs involves RESTful requests.

REST / RESTful APIs – Discussions regarding APIs often make references to “REST” or “RESTful” architecture. REST stands for Representational State Transfer, and you probably utilize RESTful requests every day when browsing the web. Web browsing is enabled by HTTP(Hypertext Transfer Protocol) – as in http://example.org. The exchange of information that occurs when you browse the web uses a set of HTTP methods to retrieve information, submit web forms, etc. APIs that use these common HTTP methods (sometimes referred to as HTTP verbs) are considered to be RESTful. RESTful APIs are simply APIs that leverage the existing architecture of the web to enable communication between machines via HTTP methods.

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