How Did They Make That: Adams Timeline

Spanning the years 1735 to 1889, the Adams Timeline is a searchable collection of key events and happenings in the lives of 2nd U.S. President John Adams, First Lady Abigail Adams and three succeeding generations of their immediate family. Members of the Adams family were deeply involved in a tumultuous era of American history and were keen observers of national and domestic politics, as well as day-to-day activities on their beloved family farm. The collection of Adams Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) is the most comprehensive and historically complete family collection held by any American cultural institution. While forming the basis of numerous digital and analog resources, this vast body of material lacked a coherent summation of major personalities and collection highlights.

Why We Needed It

The creation of the Adams Timeline achieves the dual results of a more streamlined presentation of historical data and fulfillment of a need in the research community. A diverse audience ranging from established scholars to schoolchildren land directly on this resource when searching for biographical information on the Adams family and access an interactive organization of key data points. Residing on the website of the MHS, the timeline acts as a portal for locating different types of Adams family information held by the Society. This was an initially unforeseen benefit of creating the timeline, but the addition of hyperlinks to transcriptions and images of original documents allowed for ready access to related materials, including collections of letters and transcriptions, images of diary entries and annotated documents from the Adams Papers Digital Edition.

While an earlier version of the timeline was displayed only as a static table, this newly created web tool visualizes temporal information and allows for the analysis of the intersection and overlapping of interrelated events. A well-designed data visualization allows users to quickly spot patterns, trends, clusters, gaps and outliers and fulfills Maureen Stone’s definition of information visualization as “the creation of graphical representations of data that harness the pattern-recognition skills of the human visual system.”1 The Adams timeline now allows for users to make ready connections through time, understand relations between events and within context and quickly scan a dataset in ways that were not possible within a static table. As Joseph Priestley noted in his 1764 publication of a chronological chart representing historical figures, “the thin and void places in the chart are, in fact, not less instructive than the most crowded.”2 Thus a gap in a timeline may be just as meaningful as an area of high activity and an opportunity for exploration of the underlying causes of such a void.

What We Used

This timeline was built as a customized adaptation of the SIMILE timeline widget. Sara Sikes, the Adams Papers Associate Editor for Digital Projects, initiated and managed the project. In January 2012, the Adams Timeline project work began in earnest with Adams Papers’ Sikes and Research Associate Caitlin Christian-Lamb, along with MHS Web Developer Bill Beck and Assistant Web Developer Travis Lilleberg, forming the core team.

Designed to handle specific dates, time spans, events, images and links, the timeline is rendered from data in an underlying XML file (a markup language used in many scholarly editing projects) file. Encoded by Christian-Lamb, the project underwent review and beta testing by several Adams Papers staff members from January to September 2012. Each individual in the Adams family, as well as the most frequent correspondents mentioned in timeline events, is encoded with a unique identifier, allowing for filtering of events relevant to a certain person and the creation of a focused timeline for an individual rather than the whole family. This filtering is accomplished with individual XSLT stylesheets (a language used to transform XML into other formats) in addition to a master stylesheet, created by Lilleberg over the course of 2012. Lilleberg and Beck were responsible for troubleshooting timeline display issues. In order to keep the timeline completely self-contained on the MHS website, the web developers also used an applet to download the JavaScript provided by the SIMILE widget. While the Adams editors will continue to add events to the timeline as new digital editions are published and additional research is conducted, the current version of the timeline went live in September 2012.

Why We Chose It

When exploring the development of the Adams Papers timeline, our team considered a number of important factors, including: the ability to incorporate images and hyperlinks to other MHS materials; the functionality to zoom in on the timeline; text searchable by keyword; inclusion of both specific dates and date spans; and an application that does not rely on Adobe Flash. The ability to host the timeline, data, and stylesheets on MHS-controlled servers was also highly desirable, in order to maintain control of the resource and ensure its availability.

When choosing a tool for creating the Adams Timeline, the team considered XTimeline, Dipity, and SIMILE. XTimeline is a free tool that is the simplest and most streamlined of the three to use on the development side, but we felt the resulting timeline was not as easy for researchers to navigate and extract relevant information.

Dipity harnesses the power of multimedia and social media content, including features like timestamps, geolocation, and real-time updates. Users can manually create timeline events, or easily import content from a myriad of social media and content-sharing websites to the free version of the timeline. However, Dipity places a cap of 150 events per free timeline, and the Adams Timeline exceeded that maximum, so this would have necessitated  signing up for a premium monthly subscription.

The SIMILE timeline widget is part of a suite of data visualization widgets that were originally developed at MIT. Timelines created with SIMILE can be integrated within a personal or institutional website. Unlike the other two applications we explored, developers require some coding knowledge and skills to build a timeline (basic HTML, XML, and in our case, XSLT). Because SIMILE is an open-source tool, we were able to modify the look and functionality of the timeline and facet the timeline by Adams family member.

When the project was conceived, SIMILE was the tool that fulfilled our needs the best—audience/user-friendly, allows for linking to material and images, open source, and easily hosted on the MHS website. Another tool we considered is Timeline JS, which is free, open source, has the ability to link to images and sites and is perhaps more user-friendly but less customizable than SIMILE.

Funding

No additional sources of funding were required for the Adams Timeline. The Adams Papers Editorial Project is currently funded primarily by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Packard Humanities Institute, and the Gould Charitable Foundation.

Skills and Resources

1.  How did your academic background, experience, and professional interests prepare you for this project, and projects like it generally?

[Caitlin] When we began work on the Adams Timeline, I was about halfway through my graduate program - a dual M.S. Library Science (archives concentration) and M.A. History at Simmons College. My coursework dovetailed nicely with my work at the Adams Papers, as I had recently learned XML for both a course and an internship so I was well-situated to do the encoding work. Outside of my undergraduate and graduate coursework and theses, I had engaged in historical research and written for the web at several part-time jobs and internships. Although I have a B.A. and M.A. in History, I had never focused on the Colonial or Early Republic periods so while my history training and interests prepared me for working on a project like the Timeline, I learned quite a bit about the era, the Adams, and their world.

[Sara] I began at the Adams Papers Editorial Project in 2006 with an M.A. in American studies and a concentration in New England regional studies. Over the course of my tenure, I’ve achieved a deep knowledge of the Adams Papers documentary editions and the online Adams resources. As the Digital Projects Editor, I oversee the transition of two concurrent series from a print to digital format—Papers of John Adams and Adams Family Correspondence (www.masshist.org/publications/apde). In 2010, I assumed the management of a grant-funded project to complete the digitization of the Online Adams Catalog (www.masshist.org/adams/catalog), an item-level catalog of all known Adams documents. I’m also actively engaged with the international digital humanities community, participating in the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, the European Summer School in Leipzig and DH2014 in Lausanne. As the 2012 President of the New England American Studies Association, I organized a “Digital Revolutions” conference to highlight the work of scholars both within and beyond academia.

2.  If needed, what new things did you learn during this project (technical skills, managerial skills, team building, project management, etc.)? How did you approach learning them?

[Caitlin] Although I had already worked with XML, my only experience prior to the Adams Timeline was using EAD for archival finding aids, so encoding every event and span really gave me a deeper understanding. My existing knowledge of EAD and HTML was enough to begin encoding, and I asked questions that came up of our web development team (or searched on Google). Learning about how XSLT works from our web development folks was incredibly helpful, for the project and for work I did outside of the Timeline as well.  

[Sara] This project was truly at team effort! Caitlin Christian-Lamb and I met on a regular basis to discuss the progress of the Adams Papers timeline, involving the web developers and the Adams editors as necessary. Our ongoing work was stored in a shared folder, accessible by all the team members. As this was our first attempt at visualizing our data and constructing an interactive timeline, we allowed ample time in the schedule for experimentation and regrouping. Caitlin took the lead on communicating technical issues and concerns to the web developers and skillfully developed solutions in keeping with the goals of the project. I managed the workflow between departments and represented the project on an interdepartmental team to redesign and reimagine the MHS website.

3.  Thinking on the project as a whole, if you could distill your experience, what key lessons learned would you share?

[Caitlin] The Adams Timeline was my introduction not only to the Adams Papers and the Massachusetts Historical Society (I began work on the project almost as soon as I began my position at MHS), it was my introduction to digital humanities work. I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction, or a better team to work with - our project manager, Sara Sikes, is both incredibly knowledgeable about her subject and digital affordances, and she is open to suggestions and discussion. Our web developer, Travis Lilleberg, has amazing technical skills and a deep interest in history and information science, so he was very generous with his time and invested in the project outcome. One of my biggest takeaways from working on the Adams Timeline is that the people on your team are the most important component - many skills can be learned during the course of a project, but positive attitudes and a willingness to learn are harder to adapt. Finally, communication is key to the success of any project - Adams Papers staff submit monthly reports of work completed and goals for the upcoming month, and that robust reporting system aided in keeping the whole team on the same page.

[Sara]  Good planning is key! It’s essential to think through a project at the outset and have a clear sense of how the stakeholders envision the final results of the project. The importance of having reliable data also cannot be overstated. For this Adams Timeline project, we had to rekey each event from an older table format of the timeline. In the process, the Adams Papers editors checked and verified each data point and suggested new events and images to enhance the timeline. Once inputted, these corrections were crosschecked for errors.

Throughout the process, I think that we could have done a better job of keeping thorough documentation. Because the workflow for tagging events and inputting images changed during the course of the project, I had to reconstruct our process during a recent update of the timeline. Documenting each step of the XML file creation and transformation, as well as the timeline development and web deployment, is important for continuity of the project.

4.  Any final thoughts?

[Sara] The Adams Timeline project would not have been possible without the encouragement of the MHS Website Advisory Group and the support of retired Adams Papers Editor in Chief C. James Taylor. This project came together thanks to the assistance of Adams Papers editors and the MHS web development team.