Calendars as Timelines

Jeremy had a post yesterday about the buzz over timelines at CHNM. For the last year or so, we have been talking a lot about timelines, all of us coming to the topic at slightly different angles. Jeremy, for instance, is especially interested in the user interface challenges that online timelines present, and he’s toying with some solutions in CSS/XHTML/JavaScript and emerging data standards like HEML (Historical Event and Markup Linking) and the HCalendar microformat. I’m most interested in the centrality of timelines to public understanding of history.

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.)

To launch an effective timeline builder we need two things. First, we need an elegant way to render timelines visually within the space of the browser. Here I think the work Josh West has done in Flash is great, and I’m hoping that Jeremy will be able to replicate the best features of his display mechanism (e.g. the slide and zoom functions) in CSS/XHTML/Javascript.

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.

Finding History in the September 11 Digital Archive

Because it follows from some talks I’ve given in the past, this may be cheating on my resolution to start writing more. But I think it really belongs here on Found History, so I’m going to post it anyway. In some ways my work on the September 11 Digital Archive inspired this blog, and I think I should explain how.

If there was ever a time when public history could be defined simply as history written for the public, that time is surely past. The counterculture movements of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the postmodernist turn, the culture wars of the 1990s, and now the Internet have made our publics aware of multiple narratives, competing sources, and wary of our authority as historians. Our publics are now instinctively attuned to the discursive nature of history, and they are unwilling to sit quietly at the receiving end. Public history—as it’s now commonplace to say—demands a “shared authority.”

towers.jpgThis new reality is more easily accommodated by our intellects than by our institutions. Archival and library collections, for instance, remain inherently authoritative—archivists and librarians collect and manage collections and publics are (or are not) given access to these materials. The situation is much the same in most other historical outlets. In museum exhibitions, for example, curators exhibit collections and publics are exhibited to. While trends toward “interactivity” have done something to alleviate this situation, in most cases professionals still set the terms, telling the public where, when, and how they may interact with historical materials and predetermined content. This does not always sit well amongst an increasingly sophisticated and choosy public. New forums such as the Internet allow for more than pre-determined interactivity, but also for real authorship, and an experienced public now expects productive participation in our stacks and public programming.

The situation is all the more acute when dealing with topics in contemporary history. Certainly in the case of September 11, 2001, there is little we as historians can tell the public that they don’t already know for themselves. September 11 was undoubtedly the most experienced event in American history. There must be very few Americans who haven’t seen the collapse of the world trade center from every angle, in color and in black and white, in slow motion and in time lapse, set to music, set to speeches, and overlain with photographs of victims, their families, their attackers, and their elected officials. In many respects—and with no intended disrespect to those families directly affected by the attacks—we have all experienced September 11 equally. At this point nobody needs or wants an historical expert to tell him or her what it was all about. Five years after the attacks, a better role for historians and historical institutions may be simply to sit and listen.

pentagon.jpgThe September 11 Digital Archive is in some respects an attempt to define this new role for the historical professions, to deal with the problem of “history as it happens”, and to accommodate the public’s new conviction that it should and will be heard. Specifically, the Archive works to collect stories, emails, voicemails, digital images, office documents and other “born-digital” materials relating to the attacks and their aftermath, not only from those directly affected by the attacks, but from the general public as well. Intended as an experiment to determine whether or not it is possible to collect large numbers of source documents over the Internet, the Archive has proven its hypothesis and now stands among the nation’s premier repositories of September 11 history.

Yet, though our collecting efforts were always firmly on the public, we didn’t fully anticipate the role the Archive would serve among that public. This was to meet, at least in some small part, those new public expectations I described earlier—to provide an institutional location for public authorship of history and bottom-up interaction in historical endeavor.

pyramids.jpgAs it stands today, the Archive has collected more than 150,000 digital objects. Some of these materials are truly unique in the history of collections—real time transcripts of wireless email conversations, Internet chat logs, digital voicemail recordings—and stand unambiguously as important primary source documents. Other materials are more easily recognizable—for example, the thousands of personal narratives, memorial objects and pieces of artwork produced and contributed in the aftermath of the attacks—but are less clear in their status as historical documents. On the one hand these narratives, memorial objects, and artworks are primary documents: that is, they are contemporary representations of historic events. On the other hand it is clear that many of these materials were created with a real historical self-consciousness: that is, the people who contributed these materials were very much aware of their participation as actors in the historical process. In this sense, these materials stand not as primary documents, but as secondary narratives or works of historiography.

iwojima.jpgIn fact, many contributors come right out and say so, and the ones who don’t often let on in other ways. All indications point to the fact that people are creating materials specifically to be placed in the Archive. Our logs show that our contributors return over and over again to review their contributions, to see where they stand in the Archive and how they are being categorized, displayed and used. Moreover, this is true not only of the stories we solicit, but also for the digital artworks and digital animations people submit to the Archive. In both cases, there’s a clear concern about ownership and authorship and, by extension, about participation in making history. Look at these images and read these stories, and you’ll see our contributors wrestling not only with their grief and anger, but also with September 11’s place in history, either among the pyramids of the ancients or the iconic images of the First and Second World Wars. In this way the September 11 Digital Archive is not simply comprised of passive remnants of the past, but rather stands as an institutional location for the active and intentional historical participation of the general public. Visitors to the Archive do not come to receive history, they come to navigate historical sources, to engage historical discourse, and to produce their own. In this the Archive points toward new ways of accommodating our sophisticated public’s sophisticated expectations. From the outset, we saw the Archive as an experiment, and like any good experiment, the unintended outcomes have been easily as interesting as the hypothesized results. One of these is a treasure trove of found history.