Intriguing structures: Timelines

I enjoy finding visualizations that enhance understanding in different ways. In the recent past, I explored the use of calendars to share resources and support self-directed learning (Public Domain Day calendars). This week I was exploring graphic and interactive timelines. Although you might think that timelines are only useful for presenting a visual overview of historic periods, they can also deepen understanding, provoke further exploration or enhance retention and retrieval. Some timelines are presented as a static image while others feature intriguing interactive features.

What is a timeline (in your understanding)? When I began exploring, I thought of timelines as horizontal lines with text and images that highlighted significant events, people, objects, etc. over a specific time period. In my past experiences, I had found them useful to show students how ideas developed, the breadth and depth of historic events and related objects, and the changes in beliefs around teaching and learning.

What I found this week is that timelines can be thought of in two ways:

  • as a time or project management tool;
  • as a method of understanding/learning about historic or chronologically organized events, people, things, etc.

My interest is primarily in supporting or enhancing learning so I’ll focus on the 2nd group. These kinds of timelines have some shared characteristics but the actual structure, level of detail and focus can vary widely. While historic examples of timelines were somewhat limited to one iteration or presentation (an image or document), technological advances have allowed a greater creativity and flexibility.

The historic timeline shown on the left “A New Chart of History” is a static yet amazingly detailed and comprehensive timeline developed by Joseph Priestley, a British scientist and multi-subject teacher and philosopher. Priestley developed this timeline to help his student understand the history of empires and changes in power.

two timelines side by side
Timelines: 1769 vs 2023

The current immersive experience of history on the right “The Museum of the World” is a joint project of the British Museum and Google. It divides the world timelines into the major regions with time running ahead of you as you move deeper into the space. There are various filters for the types of history you want to explore and you can see fine lines that connect events and objects across time and space.

Many of us will want to develop much simpler timelines and there are many different ways to create useful and visually appealing time charts or maps. Many of the different companies that provide online timeline makers also have free templates you can use to explore your ideas. They all emphasize the importance of defining your purpose and scope first. I’d also suggest you test out what each one of them means by “free to use” plans. The limitations may make it useless for your purposes. It may be worthwhile to subscribe for a month or year to test your ideas.

And if you are an instructor who wants to explore the implications of your timeline design, check out this story by researcher Sara Di Bartolomeo: Timelines are not always lines: An evaluation of different timeline shapes. Her team researched the impact of horizontal, vertical or spiral timelines.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief introduction to the possibilities of timeline structures in teaching. I’d appreciate hearing if you actually use this infographic structure in your future teaching. You can email me at sylviar at educomm dot ca

Refs and resources:

Priestley’s Timelines, Infographics Lab, University of Oregon

A New Chart of History (image), by Joseph Priestly, Wikimedia

Types of timelines, Lucidchart

A Quick Guide to Timelnes and Different Types of Timeline Templates, SlideUpLife, Medium, Jul 3, 2020.

Timelines of World History, Wikipedia – visual examples include vertical Timeline of natural history, and the more complex ChronoZoom a free open source project that visualizes time on the broadest possible scale.

Timeline Maps, David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Timeline Graphic Organizer, Lesson Plans by Anna Warfield, StoryboardThat

Examples of infographic timeline templates:;;; etc.

Public Domain Day 2023

So, January 1st, 2023 (aka Public Domain Day) has passed. Did you wonder why you didn’t see any news about Canadian works that have been released into the public domain?

I think that most educators and other curious people are already familiar with the reasons for copyright and the value of works that can be shared freely when they enter the “public domain.” The internet is full of creative examples of re-imagined images, writings, etc. and many educators have enjoyed free access to historical maps, journals and books to deepen their understanding and teaching.

There are good reasons for copyright protection but, in the past, Canada had been in the “life plus 50 years” camp. We had believed that the value of sharing cultural works to the public was more important as it allowed them to be more widely enjoyed and benefited the institutions that curate and store many of them (i.e., galleries, libraries, archives and museums – GLAM). A recent article in the Canadian Lawyer highlighted the division of potential benefits and challenges.

For the less-than-one percent of copyrighted works which remain valuable 50 years after the authors death, the movie studios, recording studios, publishing houses, and other people or entities that own them will have their monopoly for another 20 years, says Anthony. But for the majority of copyright owners, “the extension is irrelevant.”

Daniel Anthony of Smart & Biggar LLC

However, as of December 31, 2022, Canada fell into line with the USA, a requirement of our participation in the Canada-USA-Mexico free trade agreement. Canada has now joined the “life plus 70” countries that include, among others, Europe and Australia. Therefore, there will be no Canadian works entering the public domain until 2043. If you weren’t aware of the impending change, check out this recent CTV News article.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy what became available from other countries on January 1, 2023, and learn more about shared culture. You may even be inspired to modify or remix the images, movies, books and other materials that are displayed in the following interactive calendar format.

The Public Domain Review (a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring the history of art, literature and ideas) shared its annual “Advent-style” calendar early in December. Each day reveals a highlighted work to be released on Jan 1, 2023. Enjoy exploring and savouring each day’s resource on the calendar (displayed below) OR go straight to the list shared by Wikipedia’s page: 2023 in public domain.

Article links:

What Will Enter the Public Domain in 2023? A Festive Countdown, The Public Domain Review,

Canada Extending Term of Copyright Protection From 50-to-70 Years, Aidan MacNab, Sept 20, 2022, The Canadian Lawyer,

Canada Extends Copyright Protection Another 20 Years to Meet New Trade Obligation, Mia Robson, Jan 2, 2023, Canadian Press,

2023 in public domain, Wikipedia,