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On Timelines

On Timelines

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Published by Steven Lubar

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Published by: Steven Lubar on Feb 28, 2012
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Steven LubarBrown UniversityDRAFT February 29, 2012Timeline as interface, in the museum and on the web
For most public visitors to history, whether in school, in museums, or online, thetimeline seems a natural, intuitive, way to present and understand the past. After all,what simpler metaphor for the past could there be than a timeline, with itssuggestion of a direct connection between history and physical or virtual space? Themotion of your body through an exhibition, or the motion of your eye across thepage or down the screen, seems to recreates historical time. You move from thebeginning of an exhibit to the end, from left to right across the page, from the top of a web page to the bottom, and you move in some roughly corresponding way fromthe beginning of the story to the end. One can understand why one historiandescribes the timeline as a bit of banal tedium.
 The timeline may seem natural, or obvious, but, of course, it is learned. DanielRosenberg and Anthony Grafton, authors of a recent book on the subject, point out that it is a fairly recent invention, based on a modern notion of history as linear, andan even more modern style of representation of that linear history. For manyreaders in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, they write of the timebefore timelines, time
looked like
a table  preferably one subdivided into squaresby horizontal axes. Joseph Priestley invented the first modern timelines in the mid18
century, and by the mid-nineteenth century, it had become a symbol of historical understanding.
 But abstractions, no matter how powerful or useful, should be applied with care. Atimeline gives us power by lifting us above and outside history, and by calling ourattention to what its designer thinks is important. It covers vast territory at a glance,but it does this by leaving out a great deal. The timeline carries with it assumptionsabout the narrative structure of history, and about the primacy of chronologicalunderstanding. More to the point, it hides those assumptions remarkably well;timelines seem natural.
Andrew Behrendt, Review of Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline |Essays in History,
Essays in History 
, n.d.,http://www.essaysinhistory.com/review/2011/37.
Anthony Grafton and Daniel Rosenberg,
Cartographies of Time: A History of theTimeline
(Princeton Architectural Press, 2010) quotes from p. 76 and p. 178. For anonline gallery of timelines from the 18th century to the present, includinginteractive timelines, see Gallery of Data Visualization - Timelines, n.d.,http://www.datavis.ca/gallery/timelines.php. A brief history of timelines byRosenberg is at http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/13/timelineIntro.php.
Timelines, historian of memory Maurice Halbwachs writes, are mnemonic schemesfor immobilizing the past in fixed sequences. They are chronologies, the simplest form of narrative: narrative with the explanation stripped out. And of course, evensophisticated narrative is challenged today from all sides. Historians of memorywant to put facts into their own mnemonic schemes; historians of the longue duréewant to step outside of traditional narrative; postmodern historians want to do innarrative altogether.
Narrative and its younger brother, the timelinefrom thebegats of the Bible to lists of monarchs to the rise and fall of civilizationare placeswhere the appearance of inevitability serves political power.Beyond the philosophy of narrative history built into the timeline, there are otherproblems in what they suggest about historical change. We dont, in fact, walk through time; we stay in one place in the river of time, picking the direction we want to head in. That is, we make choices about what we should do next, and we makethem without knowing whats coming down the river of time. This is, from theperspective of the teacher, the most important failing of the timeline; it argues forthe inevitability of history. It eliminates the choices that were made. It suggests that there were no alternatives; timelines have no branches of paths not taken. Thetimeline makes us think that history is shaped with perfect foresight; that what happened had to have happened. It works well with a Whig history that suggeststhat the past must have led to the present, along the path that it did. The timelineseems like a pathway that we had to have followed, rather than a photograph of awell-worn path that weve taken.The timeline is an abstraction, and the differences of our experiences of the timelineand actual historical time is worth considering, as a place to start thinking about thepower and distortions of the timeline as interface.
At its most fundamental, the timeline is a kind of visualization, and like allsuch interface abstraction, it brings events or artifacts into groupings,
unified sets of data,´ making them more than discreet, individual objects.´
Itconnects bits in a structured way, and the creator of the timeline is the one whochooses that structure.
The timeline is an edited version of the flow of time. We pick and choosewhat to include, and what goes where.
The timeline lets us artificially alter our speed and focus. This is the brillianceof timeline, of course; it abstracts in useful ways. We can zoom in and out,
Jacques Le Goff, Is Politics Still the Backbone of History?,
100, no. 1(January 1, 1971): 119. Maurice Halbwachs, The Collective Memory, trans. Francisand Vida Ditter (1950; New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 78-106. ADD also HaydenWhite
Treveor Owens and Jefferson Bailey, From Records to Data with Viewshare: AnArgument, An Interface, A Design, 2012, 2; More generally, see Martyn Jessop,Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity,
Literary and Linguistic Computing
23,no. 3 (September 1, 2008): 281293.
covering now years, new decades, now millennia. We can break out categories of interest, and include details where they seem important.We might sum this up in this way: to live history is to be immersed in the flow of time. To represent and even more, to understand, history, we need to see it fromoutside. The timeline allows us not merely to see history from outside, but evenmore powerfully, from above. Its a map, and maps have power.Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton give us a detailed history of timeline in their book.They dont consider it beyond print, though, and it is as a dynamic interface that it isperhaps most interesting. So let us consider how this map of time is used in threetypes of dynamic presentations: in the classroom, in the physical space of museums,and in the virtual space of the web.
K-12 history teachers are enamored of timelines. Timelines decorate the bulletinboards of many a social science classroom, and are a staple of homework projects even though there seems to be only limited evidence of their utility in learninghistory. The debate over their use is related to the long history of debate over therole of memorization of dates in history teaching, a debate that in the past few yearshas been tied to conservative critiques of the decline of traditional history.
Itsalso tied to changing understandings of the way that children understand the natureof time, and the past.
 The most recent research suggests that timelines are useful in teaching if they areinteractive, constructed by the students over time, by adding images anddescriptions; if they connect to moments in history, not to history as an abstraction;and if they suggest that students are part of history, not separate from it:With interactive timelines as the stimulus for detailed descriptionssupported with visual aids, children come to realize the how and why of change . . .. By including richer content and by embedding it within such acontext, the teacher helps the students construct a richer network of understandings than they would develop if they limited themselves to thecontent in textbooks and to skills exercises designed only to determine if they can sequence a series of events correctly.
P. Harnett, Heroes & Heroines; Exploring a Nations Past. The History Curriculumin State Primary Schools in the Twentieth Century,
History of Education Society Bulletin
62 (1998): 98.
For more on the history and the debate over their utility in learning, see WilliamStow and Terry Haydny, "Issues in the teaching of chronology," Chapter 7 in JamesArthur and Robert Phillips,
Issues in History Teaching
(Psychology Press, 2000).pp.83-8
Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman, History Is Alive: Teaching Young Children About Changes over Time,
Social Studies
, no. 3 (January 1, 2003): 110.

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