Blog Post

Digital Timelines

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 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 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?





Digital Timelines can be used for any subject now. Such as for math, a timeline could be helped for the dates in which different mathematicians lived, also can point the big case from them.  “In science class, an invention timeline or a timeline of the different spacecraft used in the United States space program would be interesting. In social studies and history you could have timelines over a variety of topics. ” for our life, we can even make a timeline for our family vacation, or just have an outing.

There are so many different web tools for the made a timeline, and also they are free, you can organize content by date and time. You can create, share, embed and collaborate on interactive and visually engaging timelines, also you can have point by video, audio, images, text, links, social media, location and timestamps and so on. 

the good issues by author at the end of this article, I think if we do not have the Timelines, we will lost in the past, no plan for now at least, 



Thanks Christina for the post. I too agree with you thatstudents of the 2010s and beyond are lucky not to face the same limitations that you did back in the 1990s. I feel Digital timelines are a perfect replacement for the classroom “wallpaper”. I remember having the same experience when I was back in my early years of High School when my group did a Timeline on Creation of the League of Nations known today as the United Nations. I never did enjoy the classroom “wallpaper” idea as decorating the timeline consumed so much of our time that we did not really focus on the content of our presentation. The actual work also took up a lot of space and the end product was a balance between including only the relevant ideas and making sure it did not look cluttered and unorganised. Overall I found it quite boring.


With the world becoming more digitized, the possibilities and variability with digital timelines are endless. With the rise and evolution of digital media, creating, sharing and using timelines are a fun activity. Digital media enables the use of a variety of sources such as audio clips, images and film to be incorporated into the timeline to aid the written text to present history. Furthermore with the development of technology in this day and age, we are able to decide how creative we want to be with its design and also whether we want our timeline to be interactive. Timelines in the digital form also make editing and adding information more feasible so that the information can always be up to date.  I believe that this means history students can be more engaged in the learning process.


Although this all sounds exciting, it also means that we must be technology literate to a certain extent. Those creating digital timelines might need a certain set of skills to be able to create an extensive desirable product. However in saying this, I feel the end product is one that is worth learning the necessary skills and as I wrote before, with the development of technology, one can choose to design a digital timeline which is easy to navigate through – which we hope would be the case.


This website has a few examples of different timelines that can be created digitally:




I definately agree with you about how students of today are fortunate enough to have modern technology to help record history. Digital timelines are great for life's interesting and significant events and they help to keep track of the mile stones in life. With smart phones now it is so much easier as well to document events by video and to tweet to record significant events in one's personal history. I can imagine that in future generations when they wish to look back on this period in history they won't have any problem in finding sources to piece together fragments and traces from the past.  When we think back the last twenty years it was common for dusty photo albums to be around at people's houses often disorganized and mixed up. In the modern era however this is not a problem, obviously with new technology it is far easier to record precious moments of your life which I think is food for thought especially when doing history is finding these small moments and constructing a narrative of what happened in our mind's eye. 


I absolutely agree that one has to be computer literate and tech savvy to be able to fully take advantage of this new technology. It is good that older people to some degree have taught themselves how to use modern computers and smart phones as well as they can help record some of life's fun and significant events. On the other hand there are still some older people who are reluctant to get involved however the younger generation will be there to pick up the new skills like constructing digital timelines and new devices to help record history.


Thanks Michael, I had forgotten about the uprising of smart phones. I completely agree how smart phones enable one to easily capture a moment by taking an image or recording a video and how easy it is to then post these online. Christina mentioned "timelines are useful for establishing chronology and digital timelines allow historians to capture large amounts of information—databases worth—and chart it across time". With the potential to upload a limitless number of photos or videos i.e a large amount of information across their lifespan, this allows a variety of timelines to be created. As you have written about how smartphones allow significant events to be recorded in one's personal life, one is able to basically record events and create a digital timeline of their own life online. For example parents could start a timeline for their child to include their milestones which would then be continued by the child when they're old enough to update their own timeline. Instead of using the conventional method e.g. taking a photo of memorable events and storing it in a photo album, parents are able to use their smart phone, upload the image immediately to update their child's personal timeline. Instead of remembering where you filed a photo, you can look and find everything online in one place. Digitization opens the doors to many possibilities with capturing history.




I absolutely agree that digital timelines open many possibilities with capturing history. I am looking forward to the advent of Google Glass. With Google Glass one can even be holding their children and take a photo at the same time through a voice activated command. I can imagine vividly as a parent holds his child by the swings and takes recordings as well as still images of those precious moments as you mentioned with various milestones.. Because Google Glass are glasses that you can keep on your face one doesn't have to fumble with a phone trying to capture those historic moments, like a child's first walk or a fun holiday with friends for example. Christina expressed this point well in regards to creating these multiple time lines for sure. In addition to this one doesn't have to search through their bag or try and fumble to find their smart phone to capture fleeting moments because of this voice activating feature. What if in the future one can walk around recording events as they are occuring for example? This has huge implications. As I mentioned before the biggest problem in history is a lack of sources and this will change everything absolutely.


I'm not sure whether I can fully agree with you when you say that the biggest problem in history is a lack of sources and digitizaion will "change everything absolutely". I believe there is a potential to find many sources online but the actual problem is whether these sources are reliable or not.  Since the development of technolgy and the ease of uploading or publishing anything online, vast amounts of information in the form of different sources are continuing to become available. Historians as well as students studying history, are now faced with the issue of determining the authenticity and reliability of these sources when interpreting or researching history. However we are going slightly off track as the original post was about digital timelines. Focussing particularly on timelines and the problem of unreliable sources,  primary material can easily be directly linked to support a point or act as a form of evidence within a timeline because of the amount of information a timeline online can include. 


Christina - I think i may have found Dr Brown's timeline visualization of the Transatlantic slave trade:

I can see how this allows us to see change over time and space. It is definately a great method of teaching history and I believe this will increasingly become more popular in the study of history.



I see what you mean by the vast amount of information coming available now and how we need to check carefully the authenticity of this information. I also loved Christina's idea of incorporating sound into time lines and colors. This would make the timeline far more dynamic and interesting and also help catagorize information. I found her insight about a digital timeline allowing editing to be done more easily interesting as well. It is also an interesting way to catagorize information from the past in a form which is highly visual and keeps the interest of the reader of the information. I agree I did go off track a bit in mentioning Google Glass I was just trying to think of future mediums which can facilitate future digital time lines. This is clearly a fascinating topic.


Apologies Michael, I was referring to our discussion about sources as going off track. I definately agree with you about Google Glass as a future medium. I was not even aware that this existed so thank you for the update on what is available now :) I imagine there are other new and upcoming technologies that are just as creative as Google Glass that will definately change the way history is studied and presented. 


Have you spent time on Chronozoom?    Really interesting new tool.