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Posted by on Jan 28, 2010

British Library Learning Resources: Interactive Timelines and Tools for Teachers

I follow the British Library on Twitter and through an RSS feed for their press releases as I do for quite a few other library groups with innovative directions (Columbia University Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, and others) as well as a few National Library sites (National Library of Scotland, Bibliothèque nationale de France, National Library of Russia). Library sites are a mixed bag; they range from innovative to atrocious and rarely present a clean, easy to use interface, design, structure or anything.

A mixed bag to say the least and often a real missed opportunity. National Libraries are meant to be spaces for presenting the story of a nation contextually. All the material is there; it becomes a matter of piecing it all together systematically and coherently. Every nation has a story worth telling, but like any other story it often gets garbled in the telling.

I will point to the British Library (and Museum) as a notable exception. They generally provide a clean interface (nothing fancy, just clean and easy on the eyes) and get daring with certain aspects of the site. Good lesson there for aspiring web designers; not everything has to be daring, just reserve a space for innovation and people will know what to expect.

I saw a Twitter post from them about a new interactive timeline they have just released that seems quite useful for teaching and learning. It explores about 800 years of historical texts, including (copy taken from the site):

  • Manuscripts by Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Mozart, Beethoven, Wordsworth, Florence Nightingale and Dickens
  • Original records from the Black Death and the Great Fire to the French Revolution and the abolition of the slave trade
  • The first printed book of the western world, the first cookery manuscript, the first English bible and the first postage stamp
  • Posters, advertisements and illustrations documenting everything from public executions and magic shows to plague cures and séances

In other words, neato.

I did a screen recording of the timeline, which is available from the Learning News & Event page. I was impressed overall as the facets were useful in limiting the scope, the tools for investigating the objects were stable enough and it allowed a variety of ways to contextualize everything. It is rather resource intensive (ie a touch taxing on my fading desktop), but that is a minor gripe.

From my experience as a teacher/learner, I find it is significant as a tool for contextualization. It allows students to place disparate items/facts/texts/ in the context of a chronological narrative. It draws associations, creates a narrative, that sort of thing. I could see this being used in classes quite naturally as I am under the impression that learning most easily takes place when ideas are presented in time and space. It is natural to want to slot ideas in a linear narrative and a good teacher will be able to interject when it is necessary to interject doubt (just because something follows something chronologically, doesn’t mean they are causally related).

The British Library also has a host of other materials for teachers and students that I found useful, including some interactive items like creating your own Sacred Book. There are large collections of images that would be useful for teachers especially.

As always when presenting so much diverse content, navigation becomes an issue. Good collections/images  are buried 10 clicks in to the site, making it unlikely that students would be inclined to find their way in (or more importantly, work their way out). I am not sure of an alternative to this, though; hopefully smarter people than myself are working on it. Perhaps an Open API would allow for others to rearrange and present content in ways meaningful to them. Perhaps this could happen at a district or consortial level where online resources are created across a host of resources in a contextually based format (adhering to their specific learning objectives). Either way, when presenting historical content an interactive timeline is always a good first step.

Either way, huzzah (imagine my hand going up there) to the British Library!

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