Building Historic Timelines

Building Historic Timelines Blog Notes on Thinking and Work in Progress

Building a Timeline, how difficult can it be? It’s so easy to draw them out, why wouldn’t it be easy to generate them on the web? What is a timeline and why is it useful? How does it help us all as users better understand, use, learn from and share the history of significance to our individual and shared areas of interest over time? What can we share, solve and do better than it has been done before, preferably without reinventing the wheel.

More questions than answers at the start but we are making progress. So here is an update on what we have found out and are still debating, evolving and building solutions for, with lots of help from a generous and wider world on the web. We could not have ever contemplated attempting this without the web. Please see these as notes for discussion and sharing on the basis that a problem shared is a problem halved, we might just all be able to help each other and minimise reinventing the wheel.

What is a timeline and how do we define Timelines for this project?

Think of it like a bulleted list for time specific events, they tend to be horizontal but that can be an issue in a web interface straight away. It is probably time we lost the obsession with the page format on websites but that is going to take some time and coding for everyone to evolve. We are all just getting used to infinite scrolling and its a wonderful thing. makes reading and scan reading a lot fster on a touch device than anon touch based laptop or desktop. That is a big change to consider.

Technology for Timelines, a Primer of the Key Issues

Imaginee a WordPress website without the concept of a page and it gets a little testing, It might not be my favourite interface but if you look at the BBC website you can see what we mean. Its more of a continuous canvas than a page at least on the primary navigation.


What are the current and most likely drivers in terms of core or key technologies that most users will have access to and can be used o support a low cost community or personal project like this one? These are the ones we have focused on, if there are others you think should be considered then please tell us, that would be great. These are just our views and thankfully there is still always more than one way to crack a nut.

  1. Mobile First (design for Mobile small devices and responsive design, before he laptop, desktop or large screens
  2. Flash is dead (an animation graphical standard), a bold statement but largely killed by Apple with the lack of support when the Ipad and IPhone first. So what replaces it and enables interfaces to be more than linked text and a few pictures?
  3. HTML5 is it a big deal, YEs is the short answer it means web pages can perform more like apps?
  4. CMS and Open Soure – Content Management Systems and Open Source platforms like WordPress we need them and in various forms they don’t look like going away

Mobile First and Responsive Design Needs to be Considered in Adaopting a Timeline approach

Devices are evolving, Mobile 1st (design for the mobile device before the desktop/laptop) is massive and continues to grow,. That means we should all be designing for content to work on the smallest screen first and then develop the interface so it responds to a change in size and adapts the design to take advantage of the larger screen. This is what is mean’t by response, it responds and adapts the website design to suit the device size it is displayed on.

so we maybe using larger phones but small screens say to 7/8 inches could well become standard. Tablets are great and the sizes are different from make to make and between models, but with fast screen speeds and redrawing of content users will expect and want a richer more graphical and generally touch driven interface for content they are going to spend any time on. All of his is generlly ‘out there’ and accepted and needs to be considered in order to consider out timeline requirements.



  1. Start with a few quotes hear:

    1. Google  ” a graphical representation of a period of time, on which important events are marked.”

    2. a sequence of related events arranged in chronological order and displayed along a line (usually drawn left to right or top to bottom)

      chronology a record of events in the order of their occurrence” on Free Dictionary

  2. Social Networking and Timelines:
    1. Twitter timelines are fast moving updates, short events often about current matters but not always for the Twitter definition see here 
    2. Facebook Timelines highly customised and personal records of events, but they are creating instant global history crowd sourced and perhaps driven by mass media, what will be the common factors in the massive data that will accrue in those timelines already more than 10 years old? Here is how Facebook quite eloquently show the visual and timelined links to be shared with your friends.  Will the Facebook timeline be as important as our birth certificates and marriage certificates and other personal documents? How will they be analysed as masses of data anonymously to know what was your generation interested in and engaged with 50 years from now or more?
    3. So from what you had for breakfast, to a baby and new life in the world, reactions to current affairs and the loss of loved ones we start to see just how subjective what is significant could be?
    4. What can we learn from a history perspective whatever the content from the technology that dynamically builds the timelines now for over a billion people vrtually real-time?
  1. What use is a timeline?
    1. How will the Timelines help us?
    2. Graphical oversight of sequences of events and the relevance of that order and the connections between events
    3. An overlay to help us interpret the history of our own particular interest be it a place, a person, a group of people (related by birth or not)
  2. To what levels of Historic time frames do we need to be able to build our Timelines?
    1. For Family Historians the 18th century  to current time?
    2. For Surname Studies back to earliest written records, realistically Domesday and forward?
    3. For Social Historians, since our creation, not viable for us or relevant, our focus is British History and its connections specifically to the wider world
    4. For local Historians for a county, a city, a town, aplace, a particular building, a person, an organisation are these different to what we will be exploring at a higher level ( a county, a country, the UK and the continents it has historic connections with and the such as UK/England , Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, What then of the connections to the former colonial world and other historic international events that have impacted on our history?
  3. Technology from a calendar, pens and paper or a hyper-linked list where do we go, why and how do we make it work?
    1. Open standards for recording dates and times
    2. handling BCE/CE (formerly BC/AD)
  4. Is there any point when ChronoZoom and Big History is out there?
    1. a vast and sophisticated project with huge resources and some commercial bias?
    2. Is the scale too massive?
    3. Will its ownership be too closed?
    4. Now you can customise should we look to integrate and leverage the projects great resources or is it just of too large a scale to be useable at this point
    5. Having introduced customisation who will curate or does it assume crowd sourced based model
    6. a topic for debate of its own accord, another post to follow
  5. Its difficult to build them without some knowledge of  coding but it is possible.
    1. Tools are not all about coding
    2. Simplified interfaces are just like coding a web page
    3. Where do you get and build your data from
    4. How do you verify your sources and evidence your records
      1. Explore later using Zotero and Meta Data Models that are already established
      2. How do you encode sources?
        1. Learn from Family History
        2. Learn from Bibliographies
  6. Pre-coded Timeline tools build-in ome constraints but can we live with them?
  7. How Granular can they be and still be useful?
  8. It is far from easy but is so helpful and vital to understanding the cause and effect between events.
  9. Made more complex by our subject area being so vast potentially 2,000 years and the whole of British History not missing out, of course, the significant and important links we have enjoyed in that time with the outside world.
  10. How has the concept of Big History got something to add into this equation
  11. Time (ironically) needed to collate and curate the data is significant drain on limited resources
  12. So surely it would be easier for our Hampshire History Project with a much narrower physical border? WONG, in an ancient county the specifics of when and what with whom and why
  13. Don’t trust your sources too readily, test them and crowd-source them if you can.
  14. Citations for timelines are going to be important at some point
  15. It is all very well being diligent and pedantic but at some point you actually have to start making something for real.
  16. Timelines are subject to their own historical semantics, a timeline today can relate to your Facebook Timeline, Twitter Stream or some such where the past can be just a few minutes or days old and deal with billions of event recorded but not all of which will be significant and relevant to your purpose. (That you had eggs for breakfast, for instance is just not that significant to the wider world…
  17. What data model and tools to use for linking timeline events to people places, maps links and other entities, a work in progress?
  18. Without funding other than ourselves how to keep it real cheap…
  19. Deal with bc and ac dates and centuries .months and specific dates on the date line


Chronology and the sequence of the events and the relationship and dependencies and connections between them, all very intriguing. Lots of tools say they help you build custom timelines but after a lot of research we can show you the tools and techniques to get you going, up and running fast. So you can focus on what matters most to you, your project and your toolkit. Certainly a very interactive process productive focused and fun, why not take a look and consider what dates you have available…