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Timelines


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This is the age of the timeline, entirely thanks to the web. Most of us are now familiar with timelines, but we forget how recent they are. Among the four major English dictionaries on sale in 2007 (Chambers, Collins, Oxford, Penguin) only one – Collins – includes timeline as a word. But they all include chronology, in its use as ‘a table or list of events in order of occurrence’.

As chronologies they have been around for ages – dead things tucked away at the back of books, and rarely found. I call them dead because each event on this sort of timeline was a lifeless self-contained item, leading nowhere (except of course on to the next event). If you didn’t know what the event meant, or wanted to know more about it, you had a problem.

A lot of internet timelines are still like this – plain chronologies. But real living timelines began when digital magic began to be applied to them. It seems to me that these are the elements that have so far brought life and interactivity to timelines, roughly in order of their arrival:

* hyperlinks – enabling the user to discover more information at a click

* tagging each event as a separate item – making it possible to mix timelines in different combinations

* software making it easy for internet users to create their own timelines

* horizontal formats, in which two or three different timelines can interrelate (there is no reason why the same shouldn’t be done vertically, where the screen’s width-height ratio would allow space for a greater number of comparative timelines; but experiments so far seem to be mainly horizontal, probably as a result of MIT’s Simile format)

* the addition of images and audio and video files

* building a search mechanism into each event, thus giving access to much more information than through fixed hyperlinks

And in the future, we await the holy grail, the arrival of mashup facilities – so that events entered in one timeline format can be exported for display in any other.

My colleagues and I at HistoryWorld and TimeSearch are much involved with timelines. Six years ago we were among the pioneers in letting users mix their own timelines through the selection of areas and themes (in HistoryWorld) And I believe we are the first (in March 2007, in TimeSearch) to have introduced the concept of a timeline incorporating search terms that can be applied to sites of one’s own choice.

But in TimeSearch we don’t yet have the facility for users to insert their own material (several of the emails that we got on our launch emphasized a wish for this wiki aspect). And like everyone else we are only dreaming of mashups.

I have begun this thread because I would like to find out:

what features people find most useful in timelines

what facilities you want when creating your own timelines

There are already lots of good examples out there. I shall be looking at some of my favourites one by one (and no doubt sometimes my least favourite) to raise the issue of what seems to work best and be most useful.

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Early this year a magnificent new timeline site went online as xtimeline.

http://www.xtimeline.com/

The editing interface makes it incredibly easy to create one’s own timelines, inserting an apparently unlimited amount of text as background information for the event, and easily uploading one image per event (automatically resized as thumbnail and enlargement).

And the interface for viewing the timeline is a delight. At the top of the screen the events are displayed in horizontal sequence, with a scrollbar to move one quickly backwards or forwards. When you stop the scrollbar, the four closest events to the new date appear with their thumbnails in a panel on the right. Alternatively you can click on any event and it will appear in the panel on the right on its own, with its thumbnail and more of its accompanying text. A further click brings an enlargement and the full text.

At all stages a vertical timeline also remains visible on the screen. As a functioning piece of machinery the site is magnificent.

xtimeline also backs up my assertion, in my previous post about Google, that a creator or editor is indispensable in creating a useful timeline. I described there Google’s valiant but ineffective attempt to create a timeline of the life of Adolf Hitler in about 60 events. It happens that the most indefatigable timeline creator in xtimeline has also put online a timeline on precisely that theme, including approximately the same number of events (78).

She is Victor (the profile insists that Victor is female, so perhaps the name relates to her triumphs in the timeline field) and she has put online since January no fewer than 25 timelines, consisting together of 1138 events. She is presumably part of the inner team, since she lists xtimeline as her website.

I will not go into a blow by blow comparison of the two timelines, except to say that a large proportion of the Google events are completely irrelevant (in 1944, the year of the failed Stauffenberg plot, the only event that the Google software has selected is Germany becoming the first country to impose a total ban on smoking in public). But you can compare for yourself, between the Google timeline and the one on xtimeline.

http://www.google.com/views?hl=en&rlz=...amp;btnG=Search

http://xtimeline.com/biography/Adolf-Hitle...ator-of-Germany

Victor has created the timeline, but not entirely written it. All the very useful background that she gives for her events (judging anyway from those that I have sampled) has been copied and pasted from websites, mainly Wikipedia (but then most of the Google results link to the same source). And this appears to be true of many other xtimelines.

But this seems to me entirely acceptable, and one of the ways in which a shared timeline database should grow. We don’t necessarily need people to write history. We need them to select interesting events, and to provide – no matter how - the necessary amount of information to amplify the brief account of the event itself that features on the timeline.

There will of course be many who do contribute original material, just as they do in Wikipedia – local historians, enthusiasts for minority pursuits, people with personal knowledge of someone of interest but not widely known, researchers into the history of a particular building or company or shop or sporting team.

But on all subjects that have already received national or international attention, the task is one of selection of the significant events for any particular timeline. The selecting itself is enjoyable (though much too time-consuming to be done on a commercial basis) and so also is the selection of suitable images. Victor has done a good job in both respects.

I have only two quibbles about xtimelines (it is a beta version, so comments should be welcome). The first is that their programme demands a month, a day and even a time of day. Since this is frequently unknown, a great many events turn out to have happened on January 1 (the first date one can click on). It is useful to have fields for a month and a day, but they need to be optional. The MIT Simile programme seems to have launched this tiresome habit – in some of the examples on their website the default even includes hour, minute and second.

My other xtimeline complaint is perhaps only a matter of taste. The vertical timelines start with the most recent event at the top. I have sometimes seen this elsewhere on the web (occasionally in Wikipedia, as in their timeline of Chicago), but it seems to me profoundly counter-intuitive. We are used to the convention that time runs on the page in the manner established in the west for written text – from left to right and from top to bottom. I find it very hard to understand a sequence of events presented upside down. And on a biography timeline I definitely want to see ‘born’ pretty near the top rather than far away at the bottom.

But those, as I said, are quibbles. The essential message is a very warm welcome to Victor and her colleagues.

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