For my MA dissertation I’m going to work on the historian and textual scholar John O’Donovan (1806-61) who, perhaps, is best known for his standard-setting edition of Annála Ríoghachta Éireann (1848–51) — Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland (also sometimes rendered as ‘Annals of the Four Masters’). In particular, I’m going to focus on a series of articles by O’Donovan in the Dublin Penny Journal in the early 1830s which first brought him to public notice — examining the context of the creation and reception/consumption of these contributions.
Being a dissertation for a Digital Arts and Humanities MA, obviously, one of the central elements of what I do will be the way in which I deploy digital tools and methodologies in relation to the project — which will be presented on the John O’Donovan Archive (website):http://www.johnodonovanarchive.org/. One of the things I am going to do is build a Timeline for the life and times of John O’Donovan — everything from the Act of Union in 1800 through to the death of Daniel O’Connell and, say, the war in Crimea in the 1850s and Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency of the United States in the 1860s. (I will include events from the wider world because one of my main intentions is to situate O’Donovan’s life and work in a wider context — in addition to European and world history, technical and sociological processes relating to the industrialization of culture — which is to say, the dissertation is intended to be more than just a little piece of Irish Studies.)–
To this end, I have looked at a number of Timeline packages — TimeRime, TimeFlow, TimeMapper, TimeGlider, Tiki-Toki — but, for now, the one I’ve decided to go with is Knight Lab’s TimelineJS (see here for my [TimelineJS] timeline on the life and times and work of John O’Donovan — http://www.johnodonovanarchive.org/?page_id=87
“TimelineJS is an open-source tool that enables anyone to build visually, rich, interactive timelines. Beginners can create a timeline using nothing more than a Google spreadsheet.[…] It can pull in media from a variety of sources and has built-in support for Twitter, Flickr, Google Maps, YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, Dailymotion, Wikipedia, SoundCloud and more.”
This is from the TimelineJS home page (http://timeline.knightlab.com/); and, indeed, it is just as it says: TimelineJS genuinely is straight-forward to use (it is especially simple once you’ve done it once — less so first time through, perhaps; also, significantly, they [the TimelineJS people] are not actually trying to ‘sell you’, this is Open Source software and free — free ‘as in beer’ as well ‘as in speech’). All you need to do is follow their little 4-step recipe.
Going into this my main criteria were as follows —
- Simplicity: in the sense that I did not want to get caught building something complex which down the line would prove beyond my capacity to manage, or something which in six months time would prove otiose because my research project had developed in ways I had not anticipated. Furthermore, at this early stage of my research I did not feel I had the materials for any kind of advanced construct — as it is, I struggled a little to find images for the rather simple timeline I’ve worked with. Also, I have to admit, simplicity for my own sake too: I did not want to have a bad experience with this exercise — i.e. get involved in anything too complicated (for me); however, as it has turned out, now I feel I erred on the side of caution; but more on this a little later on.
- Also simple aesthetically because the function this timeline is to serve on my website (at this stage anyway) is something similar to an ‘About’ page — it will be something visitors will go to at an early stage to orientate themselves: What is this website about? Who is this John O’Donovan character? And/or who is this Perry O’Donovan fellow (and what kind of historiographic line has he taken with this material)?— for which purpose I do/did not want anything too formidable-looking; in my view some data visualization packages, while they might be very accomplished in all sorts of ways, are (or are very likely to be) to be off-putting to most people — one hardly knows where to begin with them — and my John O’Donovan Archive project is not intended to be exclusively expert-orientated, critically it will also need to be general-reader friendly.
- Open Source and free (or at least not costly); i.e., if possible I want/wanted to use Open Source tools and, if possible, I want/wanted to spend little or no money. Before this MA program, while I had a vague understanding what ‘Open Source’ meant — an understanding which, in fairness, was not all that misleading, except I thought Open Source software was a minority interest — however, I now have a much fuller sense of what Open Source culture is about and, as part of that fuller understanding, comprehend that Open Source is the mainstream and that the corporate creations are at the margins of this creative firmament. And also, even if this were not so, the politics and philosophy of Open Source culture are much more in tune with the way I believe things are, and ought to be, so it is/was important to me to go Open Source, if possible. (By the by, I would have no problem going proprietary if I needed to, but first I would want to ensure that what I wanted to do could not be done using Open Source tools.) Not all Open Source tools are free, of course — free ‘as in beer’ — and I presume I do not need to present a justification for wanting to rein-in on expenditure (leastwise I do not want to clock up expenditure at this early stage unless I really must).
- Universal — i.e. a generally recognised (or standard) tool that can work with WordPress or any other Content Management System (CMS), and interact happily with YouTube or Vimeo and with Twitter, Dropbox, Open Street Maps, Google Maps, Google Drive etcet, — all the standards — which is to say, I did not want anything that was in any way specialist or peculiar because, as yet, I have not even decided which CMS I am going to go with for my project; and whatever I did for this assignment I do/did not want it to be time and labour wasted (I wanted to be sure I could incorporate it into my research project no matter what route I took; and, indeed, I am very happy with my choice of Timeline JS from this point of view — which is to say, I am perfectly sure I will use what I’ve done with TimelineJS for this assignment no matter what direction I go in with the John O’Donovan Archive).
However, all that said, now I feel that TimelineJS is too simple, in fact! As I say, it will function fine as an orientation tool for the website — like an ‘About’ page — but it does not allow for complex story-telling at all, much less for presenting academy-standard research findings. Indeed, it allows for only the simplest level of story-telling — nearly half the material I wanted to deploy on my John O’Donovan timeline could not be used (it simply did not work, which is to say, it did not look well) — all the detailed information I wanted to present had to be jettisoned because it is not a good tool for complexity or detail (and it is not as though I was seeking to be all that detailed!!): really TimelineJS is just for headlines and, what in newspapers and magazines, are called ‘standfirsts’ — which is to say, more or less the level of slides for a Prezi or PowerPoint presentation.
Also TimelineJS is limited in the sense that it is recommended that you only have about 30 items in your timeline — this is something I picked up in reading through the FAQs on the TimelineJS webpage (at the bottom of their page). There are TimelineJS examples where there are many more than 30 items, of course, (even hundreds of items) but the more you have the slower it becomes apparently; so the advice is that the optimum number of items is ‘about 30’.
Also, I was very frustrated by the fact that when you preview your timeline on the TimelineJS page, and you spend days picking at it and snipping it and rewriting it and finding better images for it and so forth — working at it until you get it just right — and then you take your TimelineJS-generated code (step ‘4’ in their 4-step recipe) and pop it into your WordPress page and preview it, it goddamn-well looks totally different!! (And they do not forewarn you of this at all!!) Which means that all (or most of) the time you spent perfecting it for the TimelineJS preview display is wasted; you practically have to start all over again to make it look good on WordPress or whatever CMS you happen to be using!
On the TimelineJS page it looks much better because it uses the whole of the widescreen, but when you put it into your WordPress page the timeline gets truncated to the size of your WordPress page — the pictures end up being tiny, for example, the size of large postage stamps, whereas before they were the size of postcards (in retrospect I realise I ought to have foreseen this, of course); and the text accompanying the images is put in a different place (above the image rather than beside it) — and, as any page-maker will tell you, such things can utterly transform your presentation, and not in a good way!
As I say, it is almost like having to do it all over again. I tried several things to see if I could reproduce the way it looked in the TimelineJS display (including trying to use different WordPress themes) but, as yet [at the time of writing], nothing has worked, which is a pity because, as I say, the preview display on TimelineJS home page looks good (I would be happy enough if it ended up looking like that).
For me it takes a while to get to know something, even something as simple as TimelineJS; of course, one can look at a product — TimeRime, TimeFlow, TimeMapper, TimeGlider, etcet — read the web-pages, look at a few examples of it in use and so forth in much less time, however, I find you really neverknow something until you actually put it to work. Obviously, I would know packages that would not suit my purpose fairly quickly, but ones that mightserve my purpose I would need to work with them — actually build a timeline with them — to give them a fair trial before judging them.
So, for now — for present purposes — I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in ‘low-balling it’ so much with TimelineJS. Tiki-Toki is the one I should have gone with, it seems to me. Moreover, I have come to the conclusion that Tiki-Toki is the one I will deploy for the final version for my MA dissertation. It gives me so much of what I really want that I’m willing to go beyond the limitations of the criterion set out above, viz Open Source and cost and so forth.
I love the fact that you can label your different subject threads ‘Family’, ‘Publications’ etcet, with different coloured tabs — that is, should a visitor to your website be interested only in details about the family, for example, they can clearly see the colour-coded tabs associated with that topic and go to them directly.
I also love the fact that you have a small amount of information at the top level of the timeline, maybe 20 or so words, but if you click on that you get a larger presentation (and it is perfectly clear than one ought to click on it because it invites you to do so with a ‘more’ button) — a plate, or pane, the size of a postcard comes up, which offers you about 80 to 100 words, and then, if you want even more on that topic, you can scroll down within that pane and you’ll get even more, up to 500 or 600 words plus a selection of further photos/images.
And, clearly, the system has got lots of capacity: the Mary Kearns story (which is one of the examples the Tiki-Toki people lead with, see here:http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/67/The-Life-of-Mary-Kearns/#vars!date=1949-01-31_09:39:35) has got 93 entries!, and if each of these plates (or panes) has an average of 300 words that’s a total of nearly 30,000 words, which is a serious amount of material, nearly half a book’s worth!!
The Mary Kearns example is one where you move the slider left to right to move along the timeline (or scroll to do so) but Tiki-Toki have an example (the one on the Tower of London: http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/137152/Tower-of-London-3D/) where you go ‘into’ the screen (or, rather, where what’s in the screen appears to come out towards you), which I find particularly impressive looking, playful but still fully serious — with this 3D format you get a much better sense of how things are spaced out from one another in time (a 3D representation of it rather than 2D). I plan to experiment with both these presentation styles to see which one works best for my John O’Donovan material, which is to say, I will do a version each way and try them out with various people.
At the outset I was put off Tiki-Toki by the fact that it was not open source and by the fact that it costs — and quite a bit too, it’s one of the more expensive packages. And I was also off-put by its apparent complexity — which is to say, I feared that something so good-looking would be more than I could manage for the purpose of this assignment; and, indeed, I may have been correct in this respect — I’ve learned quite a bit by working with a an entry-level tool such as TimelineJS, but I may have been overwhelmed and frustrated by Tiki-Toki had I started with it.
Also to make the most of something such as Tiki-Toki you really need to have all your material in good order: even with something as simple as TimelineJS you need to be well-organised, so, therefore, presumably, all the more so with Tiki-Toki which is at least one order of magnitude upwards in complexity.
Tiki-Toki is not something one would deploy at an early stage in a project: as I’ve said, it is a tool in which you can deploy immense amounts of material — tens of thousands of words, along with hundreds of images — and when you do so you would want to have finished material to work with (I would anyway). Writing in such tight spaces is a kind of art in itself, to do it well takes composition-time (a lot of it), akin to composing poetry [there’s three kinds of writing, someone once said — the novelist John McGahern, I believe — there’s prose, there’s verse, and there’s poetry, i.e. both verse and prose can be poetry, or not]. And getting something as first class as Tiki-Toki combined with first class historical research and first class composition/editing is where it’s at for me as far as Digital Arts and Humanities is concerned — that is, the art of bringing each of these elements into perfect balance with one another so that the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Timeline packages —