Shakespeare Through The Ages

In December I took part in the Will’s World hack organised by EDINA. I was involved with the collection of the data and so had a pretty good idea of what the registry contained but it was still challenging to come up with a novel way of exploiting this information. My first thought was to process the marked-up play texts and add links to any relevant content in the registry. This way I’d be using the two main sources of information provided by the project. After the first check-in I decided that there were a lot of people using the marked-up plays and so I started thinking about different ways of visualising the data in the registry. It’s easy to visualise a play because it relates to the way we live our lives, but a store of millions of pieces of information is less familiar.

A Timeline Visualisation

After a quick search of the internet I had found a number of timelines but very few were properly interactive. In fact the only one that I found that was interactive was this one. This timeline contained all of the key points in Shakespeare’s life but it draws from a static list of events. I wanted to create something that brought in diverse information from numerous sources and displayed it in a way that people could relate to and use to explore more of the content.

Trying to display the entire contents of the registry on a timeline would result in a very cluttered display and sluggish page load so I decided to limit the results to three collections. The three collections I chose were Open Library, Culture Grid and National Library of Scotland. This still gave me around 500,000 results to work with so I limited the results further and split them up into 50-year sections. This gave me 11 separate timelines, each of which had a sensible amount of content. The example shown below is of a record from the Open Library collection showing a publication of part of Shakespeare’s play Henry VI. Clicking on the image will take you to the specific entry on the Open Library’s site.

Shakespeare Timeline
To display the events I used the JavaScript applet TimeLineJS. This applet will take a number of different data formats but the simplest for my purposes was the JSON handler. The handler passes the data through a number of filters and, if an external URL is provided, determines the best way to handle the content. There are a number of filters already provided that handle information from sites such as Twitter and Google Maps although it is possible to add custom filters. The filters I added processed the information from the JSON input but also checked the relevant website for a thumbnail image that could be displayed. In a lot of cases a default thumbnail is displayed for a lot of content which serves to mark the event, but can become boring and repetitive. I wanted to give the user a better idea of what the event was about and having a thumbnail helped to do that. In some cases no thumbnails were available and so I had to fall back to a default image.

All in all my experience of the hack was very positive. I’m a big fan of metadata in general, and aggregated metadata specifically, so getting the chance to play with data like this was great. It is always interesting to see what ideas other people have when presented with the same data. In this hack we had a range of levels from those that dealt with the very nature of the data and how it can be arranged up to projects like mine which concentrated on how the data can be presented in a useful and appealling way. It was also good experience to play around with a JavaScript applet. I’ve not had an opportunity to write much JavaScript and the way TimeLineJS is written made it pretty straightforward to extend the original code.


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  1. Report on the Will’s World Online Hack Event (Part 5/5) – Legacy | Will's World - [...] Wincewisz wrote a post on his Shakespeare Through the Ages hack of a visualisation [...]

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