Digital Timelines and Novels

English 331 Project Suite

Project #5: Timeline for a Literary Text


During the course of this semester, we will engage deeply with literature as conceived by our traditional humanities and English curriculum. This involves developing an awareness and appreciation for our literary heritage, contextualizing and analyzing works of literature within their unique historical moments, and expanding these historical contexts in order to gain insight into our own experiences. Furthermore, when engaging these texts we will work to develop problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills, recognize nuance and complexity of meaning, and express our ideas in a clear, organized, and well-reasoned manner.

It is in the expression of our ideas, the form these documents take, that we will shift our emphasis to the digital humanities and the pedagogy of “making” things that are usable by a wider audience. In short, we are replacing the traditional essay with a new-media approach to knowledge representation. This project, “Timeline for a Literary Text,” asks you to combine the essential thinking and interpretive skills of the humanities with a digital platform that eventually the chronology of texts visible, which can prove very interesting when dealing with non-chronological & experimental narratives. By posting these timelines on the UWGB Commons for the Digital and Public Humanities, you will allow us to access textual chronologies at a glance, as well as in an interactive, interpretive fashion.

The Assignment

Your group will create a timeline for the currently assigned text. The software we will use to create these timelines is called Simile, which was created at MIT. You will track any number of events and their dates. Sometimes chronology, especially in novels, can become much more zeroed in that a given day or year ; therefore, you might find yourselves record dates for some entries and in other instances it could zero in on hours, and even minutes. You’ll find that some of the books that we read have a wide historical read, while others remain pretty centralized. All of your data entry will be done via a Google Spreadsheet, which I will set up for you in template form. I will also set up the basic shell for the timeline itself.

Accessing and Tips for the Google Spreadsheet:

  • After cresting the basic template, I will email the members of your group the link you need to begin editing the spreadsheet.
  • Brian Croxall has provided a great tutorial of how to set up timelines & spreadsheets; I highly recommend it.
  • Notice that the column headers are enclosed in brackets. If you add something, you will need these.)
  • Important! Follow the following date format at all times: yyyy–mm-dd (2013-02-28). You DO NOT need end dates for events, but you need start dates. If you include only a start date, then you will see a dot on the timeline. If you see a start and end date, you will see a line that spans those dates.
  • The “label” column: this is the “title” you want to give whatever event you are recording. For example, one might be “The Five-and-a-Half Minute Hallway.”
  • The “Description” column is where you will do the most work. Here, you will describe the event, elaborate on importance, maybe provide page numbers, etc.
  • If you would like to include an image, the “image” column is where you will enter the web address. Do this by Right Clicking on the image and selecting “Copy Image URL.” This is the address you will paste into the spreadsheet.
  • “eventType” is an important column, as this will help sort your timeline into categories.  These categories could be a character’s name, or “The Navidson Record,” or “War,” etc. If you want multiple labels for one item, those must be separated by a semi-colon.

Requirements for the Timeline:

  • Each person in the group should contribute a minimum of five “stories” to the timeline. My hope is you’d have more to include than that.
  • You might want to organize, as a group, how you want to track dates as you’re reading the text. Maybe divide the text up by chapters, by sections, or some other organization schema.
  • Your timeline should provide us with a meaningful chronology, since our goal is to use it an an “approach” for interpreting the text. In order for this to work, the timeline has to be as complete as possible, but also focused and possibly thematic.

Other Tips for Pretty Formatting

Knowing some basic HTML code is helpful here, and that may sound daunting. I’ll provide examples here for what you might want. If you want to format text within the cells, DO NOT use the formatting bar in Google Spreadsheets; you need to “code” the cells.

  1. If you want to bold or italicize any words in the spreadsheet, you surround them with opening and closing tags.  What follows here are examples of how to make House of Leaves bold font, italic font, and both.

<b>House of Leaves</b>
<em>House of Leaves</em>
<b><em>House of Leaves</b></em>

By typing the above into the actual spreadsheet cells, you should be fine.

  1. If you want to include a hyperlink out to another page, you will again use HTML tags, and this is a little longer. Here is the basic formula:

<a href=”webaddress goes inside these quotes”>The text that will be the link goes here</a>

Let’s say you wanted to link to a House of Leaves web site from something in your description. It would look like this:

<a href=””>This book has cult status</a>

So, in whatever sentence you wrote, “this book has cult status” would be a hyperlink to the address included above.

  1. If you want to include video in your description field, say from YouTube or Vimeo, simply get the “embed” code from the website and paste it into the spreadsheet.

What Should You Record on the Timeline?

There is a huge range here, but some things worth recording might include:

  • The significant action and events of the main plot itself
  • Important dates relating to characters but are peripheral to the text’s action (birth dates, etc.)
  • Important historical dates that are referenced in the text or referred to as being important
  • Maybe the author themselves are important, and someone wants to research a little about the author’s life, important dates, etc.
  • The actual metadata for the book and author: publication dates, significant dates in author life, etc.
  • Important: record page numbers for the dates you are citing (when applicable)
  • Important: you must use some multi-media connected to the chronology in some way: historical photos, videos, pop-cultural documents, songs that are mentioned… the sky is the limit.
  • Finally: for each story you create, the text included should, at a minimum, explain the significance of the item, and why that item has interpretive value in the text as a whole.

Evaluation and Support

If you have any problems using the commons, I will be your main source of technical support.

Your timeline will be assessed against the requirements listed above—completeness, creativity, and the strength of the interpretive connections to the text.

When we are done with the novel, you will embed the timeline in the UWGB Commons site.


In a document created in The Commons, I would like your group to collaboratively reflect on the following issues:

  • How did completing this assignment affect how you read the novel? How so?
  • Is there a level of knowledge that was provided uniquely by this assignment, beyond the initial reading itself?
  • What was your experience using the timeline software? What were the problems and how did you solve them?
  • What would you change about this assignment to make it more relevant, informative, enjoyable, challenging, or interesting?
  • Do you see this project being helpful for literary study? Why and how?

A note on images for all projects:

One thing about new media and writing for the web is that images are more often incorporated than in traditional print, and this raises issues of permissions.  In order to remain on the right side of copyright law, here are some good things to keep in mind:

  1. Most images at Wikipedia are already available for use
  2. Be aware of what Creative Commons is. Almost every image I use at my own blog was acquired through a Creative Commons search and simply require me to credit the author. Here is the link for a Creative Commons search of sites like Flickr, Google, etc. Copy it and use it in this course:

  3. When you use an image, add a caption that credits the source. Most often, a simple: “Image: Smith” will do.

 Credits: This assignment is entirely based off the work/tutorial provided by Brian Croxall under a Creative Commons license.  More details here: