The Timeline as a Historical Tool

One of my favorite digital tools is Timeline JS. Developed by the Knight Lab at Northwestern University, it lets you create an multi-media timeline covering any period or topic using nothing more than Google Sheets and a simple web interface. Timeline JS is attractive, easy-to-use, collaborative, and adaptable to multiple purposes. I’ve used it to honor a deceased colleague (see below), as an alternative to PowerPoint as an aid to lecture, as a review resource for midterm and final exams, and, most often, as the basis for individual and group projects in my Intro to History and Modern Europe courses.

Screenshot of GW Carlson timeline
Alas, you can’t embed Timeline JS in, so I’ll have to share a screenshot and invite you to click through

The reason I like it so much as an in-class assignment is that it not only gives students a different way to communicate research, but it forces them to think about history as an act of interpretation.

To explain, let me start by encouraging you to look at this timeline of World War I, published by The [London] Telegraph. (It’s actually from last June, but I just stumbled across it.)

In many respects, it meets the criteria I would set for students. It could be more interactive, or allow for users to move within it in ways other than scrolling up and down. But it’s accessible, with informative and generally concise explanations and well-integrated images and video.

And it seems comprehensive, covering dozens of battles across multiple fronts of the war. So the headline writers are bold enough to call it “The First World War: a complete timeline.”

That’s where it fails miserably.

First, it doesn’t take much effort to spot key omissions. Like the sinking of the Lusitania. Or the start of the Armenian genocide. Or the Dublin uprising. Or the U.S. declaration of war on Germany. Or, oh, the armistice that ended fighting on the Western Front on November 11, 1918.

But even if all those obviously significant events were included, it still would not be a complete timeline. For the very simple reason that

there’s no such thing as a complete timeline.

The very nature of producing a timeline is that you must select certain events and interpret their meaning. It starts with the act of periodization. The Telegraph timeline not only starts on August 4, 1914 (a week after the war began on the Austrian-Serbian border) but it includes no information on even the immediate causes of the war, or its immediate aftermath.

And that’s fine. Every historical narrative — whether rendered as a monograph or a timeline — could theoretically start “In the beginning…” But we shrink the scope of  our storytelling, for our own sake and that of our audiences.

And even within the relatively narrow window of a four-year timeline, there is a seemingly endless number of events that could be included. So we adjust our scale. We focus on a certain location, or a certain group of people, or we view the past through a certain thematic lens that brings certain events into relief. In the case of the WWI timeline, the author clearly decided to privilege particular kinds of events: battles and campaigns. That’s certainly defensible in a military history, but it causes other kinds of events — also crucial to understanding military history — to recede: e.g., producing war materiel and getting it in the hands of combatants, the impact of war on cultural and intellectual life, the experience of civilians.

Gaddis, Landscape of History“Historians,” wrote John Lewis Gaddis, “have no choice but to engage in these manipulations of time, space, and scale — these departures from literal representation — because a truly literal representation of any entity could only be the entity itself, and that would be impractical.” John used the analogy of cartography, whose practitioners — like historians — “reduce the infinitely complex to a finite, manageable frame of reference… We avoid the literal in making maps because to do so otherwise would not be to represent at all but rather to replicate. We’d find ourselves drowning in detail: the distillation that’s required for the comprehension and transmission of vicarious experience would be lost” (The Landscape of History, pp. 26, 32).

The same is true of a timeline, which does not aim for completeness but thoughtful incompleteness. In seeking to offer a representation of the past, it needs to be comprehensible, not comprehensive.

And it, like any historical communication, is therefore an act of interpretation.

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