Timelines Online: Hypermedia and Information Architecture in the Representation of Intellectual History

John Zuern
Department of English, University of Hawai'I
Kuykendall 402, 1733 Donaghho Road
Honolulu, HI 96822

My presentation will address the potential--and some of the problems--of applying the principles of information architecture and graphic design elaborated in the work of Nielsen [13], Rosenfeld and Morville [15], Tufte [17], and Wurman [19] to the creation of web-based educational resources that represent the history of ideas. While my own work is focused on developing instructional materials in the history of literary theory and criticism, my presentation discusses general problems in the graphic design of timelines that are relevant to a number of humanities disciplines.

Although careful attention to historical issues is commonplace in courses on literature, educators who confront the daunting task of teaching literary theory often find that time constraints and the perceived difficulty of individual texts preclude sufficient consideration of the historical and institutional contexts which have shaped the formation of concepts, approaches, and assumptions. Such consideration is, however, crucial for an understanding of any theory's contribution. Carefully designed hypermedia systems have the potential to represent intellectual history as a dynamic, networked process driven by dialogue and contest, providing students a means of exploring the complexity of that history and of entering into the conversation that sustains it.

In an effort to move beyond an instrumental application of electronic media as a storage-and-delivery system for learning materials, my project seeks to develop design strategies that take into account developments in the theory of historiography (e.g. Foucault [7], White [18], and Ginzburg [8]) that have important implications for the representation of history in any format. With reference to recent work in knowledge representation [12] and a series of concrete examples, my paper will demonstrate some of the theoretical and methodological challenges that arise when we turn to relatively static spatial relationships as a means of conveying the dynamic temporal and conceptual interconnections that characterize intellectual history. Developing solutions for problems of design is a hermeneutic procedure that engages the designer in a "dialogue with the design situation" [4] and demands a critical examination of received frameworks for organizing historical knowledge. In the case of graphical timelines, the dominant metaphor of the "line" itself tends to privilege chronology, which presents history as a sequence of events, over models that emphasize, for example, networks of discourses [7].

The scope of my own project in its present form is restricted to the years 1965-1975, a decade in which a number of influential positions articulated within philosophy, linguistics, and the social sciences began to inform literary-critical study. In pursuing this project, I have attempted to meet the following desiderata for resources of this kind:

These goals entail a number of conceptual and technical challenges. All timelines, regardless of their form, write history in the course of displaying it. As much as the historian, the courseware developer has to interpret the materials at hand "in order to construct the moving pattern of images in which the form of the historical process is to be mirrored" [18]. The relative openness of hypermedia in relation to print documents does little to mitigate the risk of imposing interpretations upon users; Aarseth [1] has argued that predetermined paths in hypertext can restrict readers to a greater extent than the eminently browsable formats of traditional print materials. Developers of instructional media in all fields, especially those whose subject matter is as complex and overdetermined as that of intellectual history, must be attuned to the expressive and interpretative functions of content selection and navigation design, concerns which cannot be extricated from the resource's overall architecture and operability. One concern in particular is that of correlation: how can the system encourage users to correlate historical data without sacrificing the chronological or otherwise rational organizational structures of the data?

I will illustrate my remarks with demonstrations from my own project as well as examples of print timelines (Kitts [9], Mann [11], and Davis [5]); interactive timelines designed for educational kiosks (Skydeck [15]); web-based timelines that employ HTML (Eckman [6] and Landow [10]), PDF (Bauer et al. [2]) and CGI programming (Benjamin and Slaughter [3]). I conclude my discussion with suggestions of how three-dimensional data-management and mapping systems such as Dynamic Diagrams' MAPA system, Plumb Design's ThinkMap, and can further serve to accomplish some of the goals outlined in my paper.


  1. Aarseth, E. J. (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: MIT Press.

  2. Bauer, L., Carlson, B. Burgess, A., and Miller, C. (1998). Timeline of Computing History. <http://www.computer.org/computer/timeline/>. October 18, 1998.

  3. Benjamin, B. and Slaughter. J. (1998). Literary Contests and Contexts Timelines. <http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~contests/critical_tools/e314l_fall_1998/archives/timelines/>. October 18, 1998.

  4. Coyne, R. and Snodgrass, A. (1991). "Is designing mysterious? challenging the dual knowledge thesis." Design Studies 12:3, 124-131.

  5. Davis, C. J. and West, K. (1996). Women writers in the United States: a timeline of literary, cultural, and social history. Oxford University Press, New York.

  6. Eckman, J. M. (1998). Modernism Timeline, 1890-1940. <http://weber.u.washington.edu/~eckman/frames/ftimeline.html>. November 25, 1998.

  7. Foucault, Michel. (1972). The Archeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language. A. M. S. Smith (trans). Patheon, New York.

  8. Ginzburg, Carlo. (1993). "Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know about It." Critical Inquiry 20.1: 10-35.

  9. Kitts, B. (1988). "Printed Time." Octavo: An International Journal of Typography 6, 6-11.

  10. Landow, G.P. (1998). The Victorian Web. <http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/hypertext/landow/victorian/victov.html>. November 25, 1998.

  11. Mann, W. (1993). Landscape Architecture: An Illustrated History in Timelines, Site Plans, and Biography. John Wiley and Sons, New York.

  12. Markman, A. B. (1999). Knowledge Representation. Mahwah, N.J. ; London : Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999

  13. Nielsen, J. (1998). Designing Web Sites with Authority: Secrets of an Information Architect. New Riders, Indianapolis.

  14. Skydeck @ Embarcadero Center. (1998). <http://www.sfskydeck.com/edu_hist.html>. November 25, 1998.

  15. Rosenfeld, L. and Morville, P. (1998). Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites. O'Reilly, Cambridge, MA.

  16. Roth, S. F., Mei, C. C., Kerpedjiev, S. and Kolojejchick, J. A. (1997). Toward an Information Visualization Workspace: Combining Multiple Means of Expression. Human-Computer Interaction, 12: 131-185.

  17. Tufte, E. (1997). Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Graphics Press, Cheshire, CT.

  18. White, Hayden. (1978). Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

  19. Wurman, R. S. (1996). Information Architects. Graphis Press, Zurich.