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Meet the Method: Timeline

A photo of Maya Angelou from 2013.

This NULab blog series, “Meet the Method,” serves to showcase some of the DITI’s publicly available learning resources. This installment focuses on Timeline.

Written by Claire Lavarreda

“History, despite its wrenching pain / Cannot be unlived, but if faced / With courage, need not be lived again.” Taken from Maya Angelou’s poem On The Pulse of Morning (1993), Angelou’s words have been present on my mind lately as Black History Month is in full swing. Northeastern University has been chock-full of events, many organized by the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute, including an Afrobeats workshop, the 3rd annual bell hooks symposium, Legacy Black Trivia Night, and numerous workshops, panels, mixers, and performances. (All viewable here). Recently, Northeastern held our own local  Douglass Day event on February 14th, 2024 (organized by the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks, the Digital Scholarship Group, Archives and Special Collections, and the Women Writers Project) and participated in the transcription of Frederick Douglass’ letters.

Lately, as I have been walking around on campus—navigating the throngs of Dunkin’ crowds near Shillman, inhaling the inky scent of Huskiana, getting lost in the tunnels—Black literature has been present in my thoughts. Perhaps it was the recent sighting of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston in my book stacks that triggered my thinking, or the wonderful frenzy of transcribing Douglass’ letters this past week—either way, I found myself returning to names like Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois, and others. Out of curiosity, I searched Maya Angelou’s name online, as I could only recall I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). Here I was greeted with a multitude of Angelou’s works, including her seven autobiographies. As I explored her website and her work, I found myself interested in creating a timeline of her autobiographies. As someone who really only knew about I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, it felt helpful to create a brief timeline of her autobiographical works so that future interested readers could read her books chronologically. 

To accomplish this goal, I turned to the tool Timeline JS by Knight Lab, the same team that created StoryMap JS (used in a previous Meet the Method blog here). The process, as outlined on the site, was simple: 

(1). Create a copy of the provided Google Sheets template

(2). Input your data into the spreadsheet

(3). Publish the spreadsheet to the web

(4). Upload the spreadsheet URL to the Timeline generator

(5). View and share your timeline

Following these steps, I sourced my data (including year, headline, text, media, media credit) from several websites—Maya Angelou’s site, “Book Series in Order,” Penguin Random House, and Wikimedia Commons

The goal was to create a simple timeline featuring an image of one of Angelou’s books and quoted summaries from her publisher, Penguin Random House. For example, the first date—1969—bears an image of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings followed by the publisher’s summary stating “Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide.” (Penguin Random House). To add a further touch, I customized the timeline’s background to be a singing bird (specifically, a yellow-billed babbler) and made each year’s thumbnail a smaller image of a female house sparrow. The final result can be viewed here.

Though it is a simple version of what can be done with Timeline JS, the autobiography timeline, coupled with publisher summaries, was a useful way for me to visualize the order of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies. This timeline also allowed me to comprehend the sheer amount of work it took to write said autobiographies over forty-four years on top of her other writings, poems, speeches, and activist projects. As Black History Month continues, I hope readers of the “Meet the Method Series” are encouraged to explore Black literature, history, and digital humanities in their own ways.

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