General:Speculative Timelines


Speculative Timelines

Speculative Timelines Case Studies

CHA2010 Case Studies

Timelines for Conflicting Witnesses: Three Historical Case Studies

Stan Ruecker, Megan Meredith-Lobay, Geoffrey Rockwell, Joanna Drucker, Susan Brown, and Bethany Nowviskie

The ultimate goal of this project is to produce a new prototype for the simultaneous visualization of reports from multiple conflicting witnesses in timelines of historical material. The purpose of this panel presentation is to outline the three case studies that will form the basis for the development of the prototype.

Some excellent digital tools exist for associating historical events with a visual timeline (Daassi et al. 2006). These include the Simile project from MIT, ThemeRiver™ from Pacific Northwest Laboratories, and SpiraClock from L'Ecole des Mines de Nantes. However, over the past few years, in various discussions with literary and historical scholars of the existing timeline applications, we were struck by the realization that these tools do not really support two kinds of understanding of history that are very common among scholars. That is, the tools visually argue that what is important is the placement of a fixed historical event, at a moment or over a duration, on the appropriate location in time.

This model leaves out the often conflicting accounts of events, where activities have been located at different points in the timeline, or in a different order – there is little affordance, in effect, for multiple witnesses.

The Temporal Modelling Project (Drucker and Nowviskie 2003) provides an excellent starting point for this project. The outcomes included: “a consideration of subjective positioning in temporal modelling; an understanding of time as inflected by perception (a concept appropriate to the humanities); proof-of-concept that visual composition systems can be used to generate regularized content models; and the development of specialized tools for modelling the temporal relations inherent in humanities data.” (Drucker and Nowviskie 2003).

The foundation of this approach is that point of view, or the perspective of the witness, is a significant factor that needs to be accommodated in the visualization. It is therefore important to keep the planes of discourse distinct, to visually distinguish between the different frames of reference, and to model both events and entities. We plan to proceed according to the three basic principles of temporal modelling –that humanistic temporality is experiential, not empirical, and thus a given, but at the same time a constructed phenomenon. The essential principles of empirical timelines – continuity, unidirectionality, and standard metric – will all be subject to revision.

The current stage of this project is dealing with three case studies, which provide a range of opportunities for considering how best to prepare digital material for this kind of visualization. In each case, the historical record contains contradictions that cannot be readily resolved: that is, multiple witnesses have produced conflicting reports, which we hope to encode using an adaptation of the schema described in Pustejovsky et al. 2007.

Case Studies

The case study led by Meredith-Lobay (PhD Archeology 2008) is based upon conflicting accounts of the settlement of Argyll in the kingdom of the Dàl Riata sometime in the fifth or sixth centuries CE. The description of the settlement of Argyll will be taken from an account in Bede’s History of the English People, the Life of St Columba by Adomnàn, and the accounts found in later monastic annals from Scottish and Irish monasteries, particularly the Annals of Ulster. These three groups of sources all give slightly differing accounts of the foundation of the kingdom of Dàl Riata. This case study will involve digitizing and coding the relevant sections of Bede, Adomnan, and sections from the monastic annals. For this project, Richard Sharpe’s translation of The Life of St Columba will be used because it is the most recent translation and contains useful linear timelines and annotations about the timeframe of the text. The standard Penguin Classic edition of Bede will be used as well. For the monastic texts, the standard volume is the Anderson’s 1922 Sources for the Early Scottish History, AD 500 to 1286.

Rockwell (Humanities Computing Program, University of Alberta) will be looking at timelines in the history of humanities computing. Rockwell has gathered and scanned a corpus of important documents in humanities computing from newspaper reports, to grant proposals to summative reports. This project will allow us to explore the desire of the field – visualizing how proposals describe a desire for some outcome which may or may not result.

Bethany Nowviskie (Scholars' Lab, University of Virginia Library) will lead a case study focusing on the production and reception history of Algernon Charles Swinburne's 1866 Poems and Ballads (First Series), a book which was issued, revised, recalled in scandal, re-issued, and pirated several times during its first year in the literary marketplace. Our timeline for this important work of Victorian poetry is also vexed by the involvement of trickster-bibliographer Thomas J. Wise, whose interventions in the production history of the volume included a forgery that caused both Swinburne and his later editors and critics to posit alternate chronologies and networks of intent, cause, and effect. Swinburne's 1870s proposal for an expurgated re-publication of Poems and Ballads provides another opportunity for speculative temporal mapping. This case study will allow us to test the application of our prototype to literary editing and bibliographical interpretation.


Daassi, C., Nigay, L. and Fauvet, M-C (2006) A taxonomy of temporal data visualization techniques. Laboratoire CLIPS-IMAG, Grenoble, France.

Drucker, J. and Nowviskie, B. (2003) The Temporal Modelling Project. and

Pustejovsky, James, Jessica Littman, and Roser Saurí. Arguments in TimeML: Events and Entities. In Annotating, Extracting and Reasoning about Time and Events. Springer Berlin / Heidelberg: Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 2007.

Speculative Timelines Meeting Minutes