In many ways, timelines are general public’s favored mode of representing historical change. Timelines figure prominently in most history classrooms. They provide newspaper editors a column inch-saving shorthand for contextualizing current events (see, for example, the sidebar on this recent article in USA Today about the Balco doping scandal). And the most energetic among amateur historians—genealogists—traffic almost entirely in a particular type of timeline known commonly as the “family tree.”
Over the past year I have been trying to move forward a project at CHNM called “Timeline Builder,” which would provide an easy-to-use tool for people looking to generate online timelines. A public beta of Timeline Builder is up and running at CHNM Tools, and although it’s a little clunky, it will give you an idea of what we have in mind. (I should say that I have had very little—read “nothing”—to do with the actual building of this system. When I say “move forward,” I mean begging my more skilled colleagues to build it for me. Josh Greenberg over at Epistemographer has been especially generous, both intellectually and technically, and a summer intern, Josh West, has done most of the programming work to date.)
Second, and just as important, we need an easy and familiar way for people to enter events. As my coworkers can attest (and I’m sure to their annoyance), I had a brainstorm on this second point a couple of weeks ago: such a system already exists and is already in the hands of users. This system is called the calendar. Why should we invent a new standard and build an event builder system when people already have one on the desktop in their calendar applications? Isn’t a calendar just a “timeline” laid out on a grid rather than on a line? If we can afford some facility for people to upload .ics files created in their calendars to our server and then dump that event data into an online timeline, wouldn’t that be a lot better than inventing our own event standard and our own event-creation interface?
This possibility got me to thinking more broadly about calendars as digital objects and historical artifacts. The increasing universality of the .ics standard (currently used by Apple’s iCal and Mozilla’s calendar projects, and supported by both 30Boxes and Google Calendar) presents historians with an amazing opportunity. If we could develop strategies for collecting and preserving standards-based calendar data and the right tools for analyzing it, we could gain unprecedented insight into the daily and even hourly activities of historical actors. What if, for instance, we had the daily calendars of everyone at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project in an identical format and we could nail those calendars to a single timeline for comparison? What questions could we answer about the extent to which those scientists worked collaboratively and/or individually? More immediately, I want this for our forthcoming Mozilla Digital Memory Bank project. I’m sure everyone at Mozilla keeps a calendar in the .ics format or in some other format easily exportable to .ics. What will we be able to say about the nature of the that diffuse and complex community of developers if we are able to collect and easily compare who was where and doing what with whom when? Incredible.
So what does all this have to do with Found History? Since most people nowadays keep some kind of digital calendar, I’m also interested in the question of whether this calendar-keeping can be considered history-making. On the one hand, calendar-keeping is time-based, event-centric, and preservational. This argues the affirmative. On the other hand, calendar-keeping is largely future-focused (reminding us of upcoming events rather than past events), and while it’s concerned with preserving time-based information, I’m not sure it entails or encourages any interpretation of or reflection on that information. This argues the negative.
I’m still trying to sort out where I come down on this question. My guess is that it varies from person to person—that some people keep calendars with a historical or memorial purpose in mind, and others do it simply to keep from forgetting their next anniversary. In any case, personal digital calendars represent a historical resource of enormous potential breadth and depth, and we should all be thinking about ways to collect, preserve, parse, and present the information they contain.