As an elementary school student, I participated in the creation of the “U.S. History timeline,” a yearlong class project that tracked the main events in American history on pieces of paper hung around the classroom. The exercise, a typical feat for a 1990s fourth-grad classroom, was hardly comprehensive. While I did learn some things—the American Revolution came before the Civil War—the dynamism of historical events was lost on me. Perhaps, I was more invested in decorating the timeline (glitter!) than actually learning the material, or maybe the exercise was just not pedagogically useful. Whatever the case, the point is that timelines just didn’t do it for me—even if they did come with a variety of decorating materials.
Luckily students of the 2010s and beyond will not face the same limitations that I did back in the 1990s. Digital timelines have replaced classroom “wallpaper.” Instead of coloring the timeline with pencils and markers, students use typed text and pictures derived from Google searches; they “glitter” the timeline with hyperlinks and youtube.com videos. Yet, beyond the clear gain in interactivity, what exactly do digital timelines offer the history teacher and the professional historian? What tools are most useful, and why would a historian interested in timelines beyond their functionality in the classroom turn to a digital timeline tool?
The short answer to these questions is simple. Timelines are useful for establishing chronology and digital timelines allow historians to capture large amounts of information—databases worth—and chart it across time. Groups like the MIT Simile Project have thus developed tools that allow historians to present their data digitally. Such timelines may be as detailed or as general as the creator wishes. They may chart events happening within a very short time period or they may span centuries. Some examples have looked at the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, while others are less grave in theme. Tools are available in a variety of different places on the web. Some of the best-known ones, including dipity.com have been around for a while, while others such as Timeline by MIT and Northwestern University’s Knight Lab Timeline are relatively new. However, they all pretty much do the same thing. If you would like a more in-depth explanation, Dr. Brian Croxall provides an excellent tutorial of MIT’s Timeline here.
So, what’s in it for historians? The long answer. I’m convinced that digital timelines are useful for tracking a lot of information across time. I am further convinced that they are excellent teaching tools, and I will definitely integrate them into my lesson plans and class assignments in the future. But, how exactly could I use digital timelines in my own research? Also, what are the limitations of the tools available? In response to the first question, I could see myself tracking the creation, publication, and/or appearance of primary sources on my timeline. I could then create links to these primary sources so that they would open in a separate window when I want to examine them more closely. This approach could be useful for the visualization of primary source production, and for charting such production next to the events the primary sources evidence.
Yet, I’m wondering if there are other possibilities. For example, if digital timelines could be layered, color-coded (like the slave-voyage timeline), played in real-time, and enabled with sound function, the historian might be able to use the tool to gain deeper insight into her topic. I have seen this done once. Two years ago, Dr. Vince Brown played a timeline visualization of the Transatlantic slave trade during a graduate class I took with him at Duke University. I searched for the visualization online, but have not been able to locate it. If anyone knows about it and whether it is available to the public, please post a comment. In any event, the visualization of this particular timeline also incorporated digital mapping and allowed us to see change over time and space. While I may be stepping out of bounds here, my point is simply that for greater analytical work to be done, more interactive digital timelines are needed.
Another thought: tracking reoccurring events (warning: the decolonial scholar in me is about to appear). What if time isn’t linear? All of the digital timelines I have seen operate on a linear notion of time. Of course, this is standard and very much needed, but what if I want to track reoccurring events in a different format, say circles or better yet spirals? In my studies, I’ve run up against these theoretical models and I wonder now about their application in the digital world. Could digital timelines help scholars grasp less conventional notions of time? I’m not so sure that the tools available now allow us to do that, but the possibilities may be available in the future.
Other related issues. What happens when you don't have a specific date or time of an event? Can these timelines capture such uncertainty? Also, are there other key questions that I haven't brought up here?