For my course entitled “Drupal for DH projects,” I wanted to curate a digital project that would argue that Victorian writer William Makepeace Thackeray, best known for his novel Vanity Fair (1848), was also a respected nineteenth-century poet. Reading the influential (and dated) twentieth and twenty-first century criticism on Thackeray—Edgar Harden (1998); Peter Shillingsburg (2001); Judith Law Fisher (2002)—would have one think otherwise. My proposed solution was to create a digital timeline using the Timeline JS tool by Knight Lab that would rescue Thackeray’s poetic legacy in twenty chronological slides. Unlike the print-based scholarly article or manuscript, a digital timeline is accessible, interactive, concise, speedily disseminated, attractively designed, and conveys a temporal narrative that potentially generates an affective response in the viewer. In the following two sections, I provide a rationale for not using Drupal in creating my prototype, and I analyze the implications and limitations of my digital timeline using the Timeline JS tool, which I propose is ideal for small-scale projects.
Initial Tool Limitations: On Why Drupal was the Wrong Fit
Drupal is a complex content management system because it is meant to be highly customizable allowing users to manipulate the relationships and displays of large sets of data and metadata. Simply put, my data for the Thackeray project was limited. Moreover, I learned Drupal also demands much set up time because of the necessity to install myriad modules (plug-ins) to achieve initial site development functionality. For instance, to enhance my administrative menu options and to be able to configure my data display on my Drupal example site, I had to install the following modules, which took an entire afternoon: “Administration menu,” “Advanced help,” “Backup and Migrate,” “Chaos Tool Suite (ctools),” “Views,” “Module Filter,” “Token,” and “Pathauto.” In other words, Drupal is not out-of-the-box user friendly. Because my ultimate goal was to build a digital timeline prototype as speedily as possible on a static webpage, Drupal did not make much sense for my purposes despite the fact that Drupal has several timeline modules, including a Timeline JS module, available for installation. One of the important lessons of the course was to realize both when to use and not to use Drupal, so I turned to the Timeline JS tool available directly through the Knight Lab website.
On Finding a Solution to Drupal Using Timeline JS
Timeline JS was a solution to a perceived solution—Drupal—that allowed me to engage with a new and interesting tool outside the scope of my course’s requirements and training. The development of a timeline through Timeline JS was straightforward: (1) Go to timeline.knightlab.com; (2) obtain the Google Spreadsheet Template; (3) fill out columns (Beginning Date, End Date, Headline, Text, Media, Media Credit, Media Caption); (4) copy-paste URL on Timeline JS website in designated box. Again, the use of Timeline JS is uncomplicated. Yet I learned that it is the qualitative aspects of a timeline that make it stand out for the viewer.
Taking a cue from Anne Balsamo (2011) that technological innovation literally “designs” culture and Johanna Drucker (2014) that visual formats and interfaces shape knowledge and identity in the twenty-first century, I treated the visual organization of my data very thoughtfully. Instead of simply enumerating Thackeray’s poems bibliographically on my timeline, I created image-centric slides that emphasized his early childhood development and education; his milestones as a writer; his most popular and emblematic poems; artistic periods in his life (e.g., Failed Ventures and Parisian Life, The Golden Era of Thackeray’s Ballads, Novel Years). Following the suggestions of the Timeline JS website, I created a short overview of Thackeray’s life as a poet that progressively built up to the major events of his poetic career. In other words, I was prototyping a narrative arc that inter-mixed the mundane and grandiose aspects of the author’s life. I deliberately framed my timeline by using a black background for Thackeray’s birth and death slides using the CSS column on the Timeline JS spreadsheet that allowed me to customize the colour of my slides. I added links to online versions of Thackeray’s poems in some of my slides whenever possible, including his collected works. My aim was to exploit the digital immediacy of my selected medium in order to inspire the viewer to read Thackeray’s poems shortly after consulting the timeline. The Timeline JS tool was fluid and interactive, allowing viewers to scroll back-and-forth between slides. Also, slides could likewise be accessed in the reverse sense by clicking on timeline bars, allowing viewers to juxtapose the duration of events in Thackeray’s life. Certain timeline markers overlapped chronologically as with the following slides: The Golden Era of Thackeray’s Ballads and The Metapoet, A Christmas Song, Abdelkader, Fish Soup, and Policeman X. Through The Golden Era of Thackeray’s Ballads slide, timeline viewers were given context as to why Thackeray published poems in a concentrated period of time.
The limitations of using Timeline JS are that one has to work within a restricted template system that organizes data identically. My slides are uniform in that images, titles, and body text appear in the same position repeatedly. In other words, creative freedom is minimal using Timeline JS. Although building a timeline is straightforward through Timeline JS, one has to interpret and massage data in order to create a compelling chronological narrative. This implies data overemphasis and omission, which exposes the potential unreliability of any narrative created through timelines—be they digital or otherwise. The implication of my project is that I can never fully tell the truthful story of Thackeray’s achievements as a poet; it would require too many slides that would make the timeline narrative unfocused. But because it was extremely difficult to research and collect the specific dates of Thackeray’s poetic publications, the timeline acts as a useful bibliographic primer for those interested in further researching the topic of Thackeray’s poetry.
Balsamo, Anne. Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2011.
Dombrowski, Quinn. Drupal for Humanists. College Station, TX: Texas A & M UP, 2016. (Forthcoming)
Drucker, Johanna. Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2014.
Fisher, Judith Law. Thackeray’s Skeptical Narrative and the Perilous Trade of Authorship. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.
Harden, Edgar F. A Checklist of Contributions by William Makepeace Thackeray to Newspapers, Periodicals, Books, and Serial Part Issues, 1828-1864. Victoria, BC: UVictoria ELS Monograph Series, 1996.
—. Thackeray the Writer: Pendennis to Denis Duval. New York, NY: Palgrave, 1998.
Shillingsburg, Peter. William Makepeace Thackeray: A Literary Life. New York, NY: Palgrave, 2001.
Timeline JS. The Knight Lab at Northwestern U. 2016. Web. 9 June, 2016.