An earnest appreciation of @historicalcats


“Young skippers South Boston Yacht Club.” (Leslie Jones/Boston Public Library)

The Digital Public Library of America — a laudable effort to provide free online access to “society’s digitized cultural heritage” — recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. Which means there’s no time like the present to celebrate the library’s cats.

Cats?! — you might be thinking. Of all the digitized treasures in the DPLA’s archives — 19th-century Native American narratives, prohibition-era photos, Gold Rush certificates and maps — you’re going with cats?

But I am not, it turns out, the only one. In fact, one enterprising developer has used DPLA’s API (basically an interface that lets programs talk to each other) to power an entire Twitter account dedicated to nothing but historical felines. It is, appropriately, called @HistoricalCats, and it was developed over the course of an afternoon by amateur coder/aspiring librarian Adam Malantonio during the American Library Association’s unofficial hackathon in January.

Malantonio, who currently works as a public services assistant at Muhlenberg University’s library, had never been to a “conference-like event” before and wasn’t sure what his project should be. So he chose, in his own words, something “silly”: All @HistoricalCats does is pull cat-tagged photos at random from DPLA’s archive and post links to them on Twitter with silly captions. Like so!

A couple things about this project strike me as imminently brilliant. (Certainly brilliant enough to merit more than 281 followers, the account’s current and inexplicably modest following). First off, it’s a good, accessible demonstration of what the DPLA does best: (1) Collect and surface diverse, otherwise-siloed historical materials from libraries, museums and universities around the country, and (2) Make those records available to programmers, academics and the general public. Second, it’s hilarious. Look at these cheerful cats!

Most importantly, however, @HistoricalCats is a perfect collision of history and Internet culture, writ small: There is arguably nothing more “of the Internet” than cats, and there is surely nothing more dryly historical than yellowed engravings from the “Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection” or somesuch. That actually makes Historical Cats a good metaphor for DPLA in general, since the project’s goal is to merge old-school library, museum and archive holdings with digital sensibilities. The DPLA now includes more than seven million items from 1,300 institutions, all of them searchable (and map-able!) at dp.la.

Then again, maybe I’m overthinking it.

“Why cats?” Malantonio wrote in an email to the Post. “They’re our furry overlords, and I wanted to pay tribute to them!”

No matter how many decades pass, that will never change.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · April 24