Digital History Tools: Making Timelines

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Krista McCracken

My work at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centrecurrently includes a Canada History Fund funded project to create education modules connected to Residential Schools and colonialism. These modules are geared toward high school aged students and will be used as part of ongoing educational programming. When I wrote the grant proposal I included the idea that the modules would include interactive timelines. I thought they would be helpful educational tools. At the time I had no idea how I would make them come to life in practice. 

Fast forward to actually getting the grant funding and starting to work on this project. A lot of our team prep work happened in a Google Doc, with staff building out narrative content in a fairly traditional way. We had multiple timeline sections that were huge walls of text and dates. 

We decided to use Omeka as our platform for this project. Omeka’s exhibition module is really user friendly and something that we were able to customize to our own needs. The Neatline Time plugin is the most common timeline plugin for Omeka. It worked, but wasn’t exactly a perfect fit for the type of timeline I was hoping to create. Neatline uses Omeka’s item library to build out its timeline, which is great if you’re preparing a timeline around archival items or artifacts. We were looking for something that wasn’t as tied to the item library – something that could contain dates that weren’t associated with objects, but were more standalone.

I did some more digging into timelines and stumbled on the Knight Lab Timeline JS. This open-source tool is extremely easy to use. If you can put things into a spreadsheet and add code to a page on your website then you can make an interactive timeline.  I also really liked the flexibility of Knight Lab’s Timeline that allows for linked graphics, captions, colour styling, and an unlimited number of entries. The open source tool can also be adapted using JSON to create custom installations, if folks want to dive a bit deeper. 

Here’s what the Google Spreadsheet for the Residential Schools Timeline we are developing looked like: 

Spreadsheet of data for timeline

Example of timeline spreadsheet created by the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre

You can see it’s pretty intuitive, with columns for dates, headlines, text, media, captions, and media details. We didn’t use every column in this project, but I think the flexibility to add more information is important. Check out the template Google Spreadsheet for more details.

Once you have all your timeline entries in a Google Spreadsheet, you just have to publish it to the web and copy the spreadsheet address into the Knight Lab Timeline Tool

Publish to web screenshot

Screenshot of publish to web Google Spreadsheets function

Once you’ve entered your spreadsheet link into the Knight Lab Tool it spits out a link to your timeline and an embed code you can use on any website. Here’s the draft Residential Schools Timeline we created:

Tada! You have a timeline. And it looks pretty darn cool in my opinion. This whole experience really sold me on the value of this particular digital tool. It also made me want to make timelines out of all the things. For anyone curious, I’d note that Timeline JS is really well documented. It has a step by step guide, and a video introduction. It’s really simple to use, even for folks who may not feel confident in their technical skills. 

Have you created digital timelines? What digital tools did you use? 

Krista McCracken is a Researcher/Curator at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre. They are an editor at 

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

One thought on “Digital History Tools: Making Timelines

  1. Chandra Murdoch

    This is great Krista! I have been looking for something similar. Thank you so much for sharing and putting this together.

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