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 asTimeline 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?




I am fascinated by these questions you raise, Tina, especially the issues related to capturing the dynamism of historical events, nonlinear conceptions of time, and the problems of pegging "events" to specific dates. 

In terms of the history teacher: I believe, for better or worse, that timelines aren't going anywhere in history classrooms for a long time to come. Students do learn through making their own timelines, especially illustrated ones because they create multiple pathways to the information in their brain through drawing and annotating an event. The question then becomes how do students use timelines once they have been created? Rather than simply staring at them in an attempt to force rote sequences into their heads, I remember designing an activity for my former high school students to actively debate about the appropriate groupings to which events might belong. This would also work for the undergraduate classroom and could turn into an interactive game when digitized. The idea is simple. Divide students into teams and assign them one large theme each, say "social," economic," "political" (for AP U.S. History) or whatever themes you like depending on the class and the setting. They construct a team timeline with explanations/justifications for why each of the events on their particular timeline should be considered "social" (or whatever their theme is). Once finished, that group presents their timeline and members of the other groups have an opportunity to "steal" events from their timeline and place them on their own timeline by making an argument as to why a particular event should be considered "political" rather than "social" (or whatever the case may be). The team who is not involved in the challenge gets to vote on the quality and persuasiveness of the reasoning. The important point is that a solid argument as to why an event was primarily "social," "economic," or "political" can be made for any and all events but having to create a persuasive reason helps students to engage questions of cause and effect and the debate format shows the necessarily contested and negotiated nature of categorization. Now: imagine this as a digital game that students could play from computers.

In terms of nonlinear notions of time: I think that digital tools do have the capacity to represent time in innovative ways. The question for me is how to visualize multiple and cross-cutting temporalities that operated for historical subjects at an historically contingent moment of the past? On one level, there is the historian's own conception of time - and some linear narratives, like Whiggish progress toward "sweetness and light" stories, are lambasted as teleological. On another level, there is the historical subject's perception of time horizons which I think becomes especially fascinating when you consider apocalyptic, millennial, or end-time thinking of different kinds. Reinhart Koselleck's Futures Past has some interesting ideas on changing perceptions of time. 

To your question of what happens when we do not have a definitive date for an event, I would add (or counter) the question: what happens when we do? Does assigning a date to an event consign it to "the past" in a way that implies undue definitiveness and closure? 

These are important questions you raise Tina and I will continue to mull them over as I think about how to rethink timelines. 



Benjamin, your classroom activity idea is a really interesting one, and one which I think I'm going to adopt/adapt for my own classroom! I use digital timelining in my classroom quite a bit, and always get my students to justify why a particular event should be included, but introducing the concept of "stealing", and making them have to defend their choices to their peers, is an interesting additional step to include. Thank you—I'm off to rearrange my teaching plan for tomorrow morning!


 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.

I'm doing something similar at the moment as part of a paper I'm working on, using the Timeglider website. The app allows you to enter dates as just year (useful when you're a medieval historian like me, and sometimes we can only say "it happened in 900. Ish."), or with specificity down to hour and minute, or across a span of time. You can also add images, embed YouTube vids or SoundCloud audio, or enter primary source texts as "descriptions" of a particular event. Then, when you click on the event in the timeline, you can see the entire text right there in the same screen. I entered data to do with document authoritng for the particular house of nuns I'm working on into my Timeline and colour coded it, and was pleasantly surprised to see how looking at the data in a new, more visual way allowed me to see patterns of change over time that I'd not picked up on when just working with text, and which might be a better way of showing that change over time to others than just creating tables or pie charts. I think this timeline method might be better for me in terms of how I process information, compared to how regular statistics work.

I think you're right that there's a lot to think about here in terms of how digital timelines have the potential to move beyond even that fourth dimension to let us conceive of things in brand new ways. I'd be very interested to hear more about the theoretical models you mention, about thinking of line in a non-linear manner, and how you think they might be applied in a digital format.


Thank you guys for your awesome comments! Ben, I too love the activity you lay out. I think what is so exceptional about it is the ability to show how one event may be viewed from various perspectives. In terms of your question, “Does assigning a date to an event consign it to ‘the past’ in a way that implies undue definitiveness and closure?” I think that the danger lies in not showing the interconnections between events. This is where linear timelines are problematic. They do not allow us to show that one event may lead to multiple timelines, or that events are often repeated. I think that the solution then is to turn to tools that allow us to map time non-linearly.

Ben, you also raise an excellent point when you bring up visualizing “multiple and cross-cutting temporalities that operated for historical subjects at an historically contingent moment of the past.”  Here I would say that the overlaying of timelines (especially timelines with different shapes) is vital. I do not know how this would work exactly, but it should be done—especially if we want to teach students that not everyone lives within a Western mindset in which times goes hand in hand with “progress” and “development.”

Ivonne, thank you so much for the link and for sharing your work!  Also, in terms of thinking of time in a non-linear format, I’m mostly concerned with mapping time in ways that allows us to see multiple links between events. I can think of many different shapes—tree-maps, webs, spirals, dartboards—that would allow the timeline creator to show intersectionality. Do either of you know of tools that do this—use these shapes? Are they marked under “digital timeline,” or are they called something else?


You know, I don't think I've come across anything that's explicitly designed to show time in ways you've suggested here, but some digging around online led me to stumble across Neatline, which is not an application I'd heard of before. It talks more about its uses for timeline/mapping work, but some of the demo exhibits which it links to seem to allow for that greater level of intersectionality that you're striving for.


Great post! Thanks for sharing all of these insights and questions. I'm an historian as well, and I've been fiddling with Aeon Timeline to map out some of my research. I've basically been treating it as a way to construct a broad overview of my topic as it unfolded. I am a performance historian, so I've found it especially useful in charting different touring companies and productions of the same play (which were often happening simultaneously). It has offered me a different spatiality, one that a mere Word doc could not, so in that sense I've found it incredibly helpful.

Your post got me to wondering, though, about a new possibility for utilizing timelines: could we use them to establish a better sense of historiography? Would constructing a timeline on the secondary source literature on a given topic, complete with important markers within wider intellectual contexts (important publications in gender, race, social history, etc.) offer us a new or even just clearer insight into secondary literature? I might have to experiment with this idea.

Thanks for the ideas!


Edit to add: Here at Northwestern, we are meeting every few weeks to discuss some DH literature (in the Northwestern Digital Humanities Laboratory, or NUDHL), and one of the readings we're examining this week is a short piece by Johanna Drucker -- "Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship," in Debates in the Digital Humanities (ed. Matthew K. Gold). She speaks to a lot of the issues raised above re: construction of non-linear senses of time (and place). I just wanted to suggest it as a reading that might help inform this discussion.


Emily, these are great suggestions! I haven't worked with Aeon Timeline before, but if this review is correct in its description then the program at least provides some more advanced features than other digital timelines that are available. I'm still holding out for ones that allow you to manipulate the shape of the "line".  Does Aeon do that?

Also, your idea about charting historiography on a timeline is fantastic!  I am beginning my prelims reading now and I am so excited about this suggestion! My first thought is that it would be super helpful to have a template.  Each of our individual historiographies would be different, but a template on the important markers within intellecutal context--as well as key historical events in American and World history, may I add-- would be AWESOME!  Does anyone know if something like this exists?  If not, what would it take to crowd source the creation of a timeline like this?

Thank you too for the reading suggestion. I'll check it out.


Glad you found the debate activity useful Yvonne and thanks for sharing these other resources - I had a lot of fun checking out Timeglider and Neatline. Thanks Emily for pointing us to the Aeon timeline as well and also for that reading. Drucker's book, SpecLab, is also worth checking out for those who are interested - she has some really well put arguments about the inherently subjective nature of all of this, the limits of timelines to represent the humanistic, and other fascinating pieces of food for thought. 


New post on the topic of digital timelines and historical consciousness when teaching undergraduates, if this is of interest to anyone involved in latest discussion of timelines.

There is a Timeline, Turn, Turn, Turn: Getting Timelines Wrong, Getting History Right 


And here:




Tina, I just came across this website and thought it might have potential for the kinds of "non-linear" timelines which you're interested in creating: Prezi. Each Prezi presentation has a story arc that you can follow through, but you can zoom out to see the big picture, and combine images, text and links. Here's a sample one, called Native Americans vs Urban Outfitters. I think it might be a great tool to explore with my students next semester!