The Presidential Timeline of the 20th Century

Article excerpt

When we review President Lyndon B. Johnson's densely packed, 11-page appointments diary for August 4, 1964, we learn of both the attack on U.S. boats in the Gulf of Tonkin and the discovery of the bodies of three slain civil rights workers in Mississippi. In a recorded telephone conversation from that same day, we can hear Johnson trying to persuade a congressional delegation to pass the Poverty Bill when the White House operator breaks in, announcing Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who tells the president about the attack near Vietnam. We can hear FBI officials tell Johnson about the discovery of the missing men, and Johnson asking that the announcement be held off until he had notified the families. At the end of the day, we can hear Lady Bird calling her husband "just to tell [him], I love you."

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The human experience of presidential leadership-how events are never neatly laid out in particular order, how decisions have to be made in different contexts, and how domestic events, political choices, foreign affairs, and family relationships all interact--is made vivid when students explore "The Presidential Timeline of the 20th Century."

"The Presidential Timeline of the 20th Century" (presidentialtimeline.org) is a newly unveiled website jointly created by the Learning Technology Center of The University of Texas at Austin and The National Archives' 12 presidential libraries. This web-based resource provides access to the continually growing store of digitized assets from the libraries' collections. The site reminds us that history is not simply the set of narratives we read in history books, but the experience of creating these stories from the essential evidence contained in primary sources such as Johnson's diary and telephone conversations. The goal of this project is to make primary and secondary source materials readily and freely available to students, educators, and adult learners throughout the world via a single unified and intuitive interface.

The Timeline itself is deployed within a dynamic and visually engaging Flash-based interface that provides access to timelines of each modern president's life before, during, and after his time in office. These timelines, in turn, provide direct access to assets (primary and secondary resources), exhibits, and educational activities associated with specific events.

At the time of its initial release in February 2007, the Timeline was populated with over 600 individual assets ranging from videos of significant presidential addresses and audio recordings of telephone calls, to photographs and handwritten internal White House memos. In addition to individual assets, the Timeline is populated by "curated exhibits." These consist of a series of five to ten screens that tell the story of a Timeline event, illustrated with selected individual assets.

Scrolling through the Timeline causes any digitized assets associated with the selected event to appear at the bottom of the screen, along with explanatory notes about the event or the context of an asset. Other thematic timelines can be selected to appear under the main Timeline: the president's approval ratings; events in other presidents' lives; or events in the civil rights movement. Because the Timeline is an ongoing project, other thematic timelines and assets will be added, as well as assets from new presidential libraries as they enter the National Archives system. Eventually, earlier presidents will also appear on the Timeline.

The experience of working with archival material differs profoundly from the experience of reading history in a book. The written narrative is usually thematically arranged, for example, with the civil rights movement in one section and the Vietnam War in another. But a student working with the Timeline would discover their overlap. Both the primary resources and educational activities provided by the Presidential Timeline are intended to enhance students' skills and enthusiasm for history and social studies. …