History museums and the semantic web

Posted on January 16, 2007 under digital history, LAMW2.0, museums and the web

I love the tools developed by the SIMILE folks at MIT, open-source tools that make interoperability between data collections a key focus. They have lots of neat tools that are more meta, but two in particular could be very useful to off-the-shelf digital historians.

The first is the Timeline tool, which I’m planning to use in an upcoming project. It’s basically an API for visualizing historic events, but there’s nothing to download. All you need is to mark up your data in XML. It doesn’t need to be fancy XML either–you don’t need to have a super sophisticated DTD–or you can mark up the data as a JSON file. They even have a tool (Babel) for switching data formats, so you could dump data from a spreadsheet and turn it into a JSON file, and then feed that into the Timeline tool. And the timeline is pretty and it scrolls in a nice ajaxy fashion, quick and smooth. The developers compare it to google maps, and it seems similarly useful, except you don’t have to know any javascript or download a key. Why isn’t everyone using this? The other open-source timeline tools are a bit clunkier and not so user-friendly.*

The other tool is Exhibit:

Exhibit is a lightweight structured data publishing framework that lets you create web pages with support for sorting, filtering, and rich visualizations by writing only HTML and optionally some CSS and Javascript code.

It’s like Google Maps and Timeline, but for structured data normally published through database-backed web sites. Exhibit essentially removes the need for a database or a server side web application. Its Javascript-based engine makes it easy for everyone who has a little bit of knowledge of HTML and small data sets to share them with the world and let people easily interact with them.

This is terrific. Not only can you show your data as a timeline, you can organize and display it in any number of other ways, all helpfully discussed for you on the exhibit wiki and tutorials. And you don’t have to know anything about databases! This is a big hurdle for public historians with little resources in the way of money and time for web stuff, who probably know a bit of HTML but have no interest at all in learning mySQL or ASP or anything else.

I’m thinking that Exhibit would be a great and easy way for local historical societies to make their basic regional history data interactive. If they have nothing else in the way of data, local history museums and societies usually have a page on “History of ____ County,” usually a long, unformatted block of text (sometimes with paragraphs). With a little bit of data mining but no new research or writing, this could be turned into a neat web exhibit that will keep people on your page longer and inspire folks to learn more about local history! Good work, folks. I’d love to talk to local historical organizations that have been using these tools already.

Just a note: A Companion to Digital Humanities, an edited volume from 2004, is now online. Check it out. (via UIUC GSLIS)

*I’d also love to hear about other timeline tools!
**Update: Thanks to Sheila for telling me that the CHNM has a Flash timeline tool in beta.

6 Comments on “History museums and the semantic web”

  1. Thanks for your posting. I’m new to the tech side of history presentation.

    Based on my searching the web and experiments testing Simile Timeline and Exhibit for local history presentation. I agree they are useful, deliver a professional look and feel. They are relatively easy to implement by following examples.

    I have needed some tech help along the way. The documentation is good but was interrupted by a transfer from one repository to an e-mail group format. They would be easier if a tool/interface were created for the kind of conversion of a local history chronology with short labels and very few events. Some University or humanities group should take on developing a fill-in-the-blank tool for non-technical users.

    Extensive, complex (multiple topics) chronologies, or wordy (paragraphs) do make this more difficult and slows the time to load pages.

    One of the MAJOR drawbacks is that the information is NOT readily available for search engines. Workarounds suggested by Simile are very limited in getting search engines to index pages and complex for novices to carry out. This substantially reduces the usefulness of these tools except for presentation once visitors have found your website.

    I’d really like to use these tools WITH strong search engine support. I am particularly interested in a semantic web compliant approach that would encourage inclusion of our local history in semantic web searches.

    Maybe Timeline and Exhibit could be combined with Vicodi Ontology.

    If you have some ideas, please respond to this comment and post any related URLs.

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