For a good time, I took a stab at learning how to implement a MIT SIMILE timeline widget. This posting describes what I learned.
Screen shot of local timeline implementation
The family of SIMILE Widgets Web pages includes a number of sample timelines. By playing with the examples you can see the potencial of the tool. Going through the Getting Started guide was completely necessary since the Widget documentation has been written, re-written, and moved to other platforms numerous times. Needless to say, I found the instructions difficult to use. In a nutshell, using the Timeline Widget requires the developer to:
- load the libraries
- create and modify a timeline object
- create a data file
- load the data file
- render the timeline
Taking hints from “timelines in the wild“, I decided to plot my writings — dating from 1989 to the present. Luckily, just about all of them are available via RSS (Really Simple Syndication), and they include:
- CRRA Blog
- Days in the Life of a Librarian
- Infomotions Mini-Musings
- Musings on Information and Librarianship
- Water Collection
Consequently, after writing my implementation’s framework, the bulk of the work was spent converting RSS files into an XML file the widget could understand. In the end I:
- created an HTML file complete with the widget framework
- downloaded the totality of RSS entries from all my my RSS feeds
- wrote a slightly different XSL file for each RSS feed
- wrote a rudimentary shell script to loop through each XSL/RSS combination and create a data file
- put the whole thing on the Web
You can see the fruits of these labors on a page called Eric Lease Morgan’s Writings Timeline, and you can download the source code — timeline-2010-12-20.tar.gz. From there a person can scroll backwards and forwards in time, click on events, read an abstract of the writing, and hyperlink to the full text. The items from the Water Collection work in the same way but also include a thumbnail image of the water. Fun!?
Library “discovery systems” could benefit from the implementation of timelines. Do a search. Get back a list of results. Plot them on a timeline. Allow the learner, teacher, or scholar to visualize — literally see — how the results of their query compare to one another. The ability to visualize information hinges on the ability to quantify information characteristics. In this case, the quantification is a set of dates. Alas, dates in our information systems are poorly recorded. It seems as if we — the library profession — have made it difficult for ourselves to participate in the current information environment.