Is there a common process/system/platform that researchers use to document historical timelines?

For example:

If I wanted to track the history of some organization. I would want to track things like:

  • Events
  • Locations
  • People
  • Groups
  • ...Eras?

Also, how those things intersect -- an Era that took place between Year X and Year Y contained a Event which took place at a Location and involved Person A, Person B, and Group C.

This is core content modeling -- turning a real-world domain of information into something that a computer can manage.

Maybe another way of asking: how do historical researchers organize their notes? If you're researching and documenting the history of...well, anything, are there systems designed to keep track of "the timeline"?

I'm reading "House of Gucci" right now, which is the long, storied history of the Gucci family and company (it was the source material for the 2021 movie starring Lady Gaga). It's incredibly detailed, and I find myself wondering how did the author keep track of it all? It had to be something more elaborate than a bunch of sticky notes on a whiteboard.

I work in the content management space. I've written some books in the field, including a book about "content modeling," which is the creation of structured data to mirror real-world concepts. I teach a couple university courses on the field, and I have an entire lecture about the process of content modeling.

Edit/Example: Musical notation is a codification of a concept (a series of audible sounds). It's a standard protocol, which many people understand, and it's used to serialize music into a recordable form. It's transferable across time and space -- I can write some music down that someone can play later, because we both understand the protocol. Does anything like this exist for historical timelines?

Edit/Example: I think I'm looking for an ontology to represent historical timelines. From Wikipedia:

In computer science and information science, an ontology encompasses a representation, formal naming, and definition of the categories, properties, and relations between the concepts, data, and entities that substantiate one, many, or all domains of discourse. More simply, an ontology is a way of showing the properties of a subject area and how they are related, by defining a set of concepts and categories that represent the subject.

  • @steve-bird: Thanks for the tag help.
    – Deane
    Commented Mar 19, 2022 at 14:19
  • @MCW. I agree. Should I rewrite it here, so should I close it ask a new one? What's protocol?
    – Deane
    Commented Mar 19, 2022 at 18:02
  • 1
    This seems only slightly less vague then asking "how do scholars do scholarship?" and I'm not sure how to answer that without stating the obvious: they read, take notes, reread, and think and write.
    – Brian Z
    Commented Mar 19, 2022 at 19:18
  • But is there a common process to documenting a timeline?
    – Deane
    Commented Mar 20, 2022 at 14:03
  • 2
    I just adjusted the title again and appended some more information. I think I'm looking for an "ontology" specification.
    – Deane
    Commented Mar 20, 2022 at 18:02

3 Answers 3


LODE is a Linked Data ontology for describing "Events", this would be suitable for describing an historical event too.

It includes the properties:

  • Event "Something that happened," as might be reported in a news article or explained by a historian.
  • atPlace A named or relatively specified place that is where an event happened.
  • atTime An abstract instant or interval of time that is when an event happened.
  • circa An interval of time that can be precisely described using calendar dates and clock times.
  • illustrate An event illustrated by some thing (typically a media object).
  • inSpace An abstract region of space (e.g. a geospatial point or region) that is where an event happened.
  • involved A (physical, social, or mental) object involved in an event.
  • involvedAgent An agent involved in an event.

If you take a look at the details on the LODE website, you will see that the terms are either described directly using the OWL language or subclassed from other Linked Data ontologies such as Dublin Core.

Meanwhile, Wikidata (the Linked Data service that helps to power Wikipedia) has an Historical Event entity, and you should be able to browse the linked subclasses on there to see which data properties it has.

Note that Wikidata can be used with SPARQL to create timelines for historical events. As an example, using the Wikidata Query Service, here is one showing the monarchs of Scotland.

(If that link doesn't work, here is the raw SPARQL query for use with Wikidata)

PREFIX wd: <http://www.wikidata.org/entity/>
PREFIX wdt: <http://www.wikidata.org/prop/direct/>
PREFIX wikibase: <http://wikiba.se/ontology#>
PREFIX p: <http://www.wikidata.org/prop/>
PREFIX ps: <http://www.wikidata.org/prop/statement/>
PREFIX pq: <http://www.wikidata.org/prop/qualifier/>
PREFIX rdfs: <http://www.w3.org/2000/01/rdf-schema#>
PREFIX bd: <http://www.bigdata.com/rdf#>

#Timeline of monarchs of Scotland
select ?monarch ?monarchLabel ?start ?end where {
  ?monarch p:P39 ?position.
  ?position ps:P39 wd:Q18810063;
            pq:P580 ?start;
            pq:P582 ?end.
  SERVICE wikibase:label { bd:serviceParam wikibase:language "[AUTO_LANGUAGE],nl,en". }
  • This might be it right here. Thank you.
    – Deane
    Commented Mar 24, 2022 at 14:38

Historiographical scholarship is not based on computing models of information. Historiography is a story. Historiographical scholarship is predominantly a multiform narrative containing smaller narratives: historiography is a literary endeavor. This is because historians are concerned with discovering and conveying systems of human meaning, and, because humans are self-narrativising. Humans are basically walking stories about themselves. While other examples of conveyance of knowledge of the past exist, such as tabular data, poetic moments, or occasionally history which strays from the long form narrative towards drama, it is narrative which drives historical organisation of knowledge and wisdom.

In a hierarchy of ideas I've seen replayed often: data -> information -> knowledge -> wisdom. Historians usually interact with already highly structured knowledge. The evil man wrote a diary before he died. The good organisation minuted its meetings. The indifferent secretary filed all the notes, no all the notes, into topical files. The monstrously insentient system of relations of production created knowledge repositories to organise market behaviour which daily reported on all things from numerous ideological slants for public consumption and better stock purchasing. Historians rarely if ever encounter data or information: they deal with past knowledges.

Historians rarely if ever organise past knowledges. Past knowledge is organised by a highly skilled set of information professionals known as the GLAM sector: Gallaries, Libraries, Archives and Museaums. For the historian, the action of Librarians in organising public knowledge as it is produced and of Archivists in organising private knowledge as it is seized or abandoned means that historians have the majority of their content pre-organised for them. In general they will read journals, chapters and books which were public; and then read known topical archives or general archives searching for topics which were private. As the historian reads that historian already contains a key narrative which they have preproduced from reading publicly available narratives (other histories). Their narrative may have a different theme or focus character (for example, instead of the Australian Labor Party, it may be the NSW Right faction who is their lead character). They then incorporate themes incidents topics or characters into their narrative from the archival material, usually by archivally organised notes:

2022-03-20 Noel Butlin Archive Canberra (ACT, AU) [archive retrieval data, such as its reference number] South Sydney Branch files, Minutes books, Minute book 1944 at 13 April 1944: Previous Minutes: Fred has really gone the hack on John here over bad minuting in the last meeting, Fred's got it in for John, read for this in future, maybe backtrack if they do hate each other.

As a historian prepares chapters for publication, they'll reference their minutes which are generally organised in the order of their reading, with sufficient citeable references that other historians will believe their reading, and they tie these points in. But their internal narrative tends to be overriding: before writing this chapter they knew what the story was from all their reading of everyone else's stories: their mind has internally organised the story, and they then slot the evidentiary material into their organised story.

Humans are story machines, history is a narrative member of the humanities which works on stories. Humans internally organise stories to make sense of the world, and historians here are no different. What is different is what stories historians have read before they make up a story and go read stories that were made up by people really close to the story that they made up in private. Historians stick a big lever into public/private consumption stories and open up the cracks. We read your diaries. We read your organisation's minutes. We read the secret diary you kept of how your organisation's minutes were wrong. We read the hidden stories you didn't even know you were writing as you were writing them via your word choice which reveals: the things you sought to conceal, or which you concealed even from yourself. We read your stories into our story and then write that down.

The information management side is trivial, you just copy the citation information off the librarian or the archivist (or rarely the gallery or museum curator) and stick it up top, possibly in a field, possibly just for deep text search.

Annotated Bibliography

Hayden White (1996) Interview. interloq. JE Paz Soldán Lucero 6 ( https://escholarship.org/content/qt5r30d183/qt5r30d183_noSplash_084f02930355392feab84b6918b978d6.pdf?t=pe4m67 ) : chiefly on facts and facticity, and the constructed nature of claims in language; secondarily on humanities' claims of exceptionalism.

  • On the other hand, history is also about actual facts, which is why you can run a Google search for (say) 'battles of the falklands war' and be automatically presented with an accurate list. That only happens because those events were described using an ontology that can be read and understood by a computer.
    – DrMcCleod
    Commented Mar 24, 2022 at 15:09
  • You’ll want to publish your unique contribution to scholarly knowledge. Commented Mar 25, 2022 at 22:09

Is there a common process/system/platform that researchers use to document historical timelines?

There is no standard of broad use by historians. By nature, the format and quality of time-based data is different in each domain. This makes thing difficult for a platform to emerge or a standard for people to agree to. Yet, I founded a start-up to change just that, have a look at HistoryTimeline.com. We work to create a Timeline Software that helps professional historians browse and organize the time space, like Google Maps does for geography.

how do historical researchers organize their notes?

Researchers typically use the standard office suite of programs: mostly text editor, sheets, etc. Sometimes they use databases and any other advanced tech available, for instance, in very well-funded projects. The problem is, historians transmit their information by telling stories, this means books, often lengthy books. This is because the historical tradition since Ancient Greece and beyond (we humans like stories), but also because the linguistic turn, which had quite an impact in early 20th century historians. Yet this is now a less dominant approach, thanks to modern data-based efforts to renew history research.

[Music Notation] Does anything like this exist for historical timelines?

Yes, Timeline Software (please see the disclaimer below). Is not a coincidence that you mention that. Organizing and documenting timelines requires knowledge in time notation, and music offers plenty.

storied history of the Gucci family and company

Storied indeed. This Gucci company timeline you mention reminds me of this Microsoft History Timeline I published during mid 2021. Using Timeline Software you can organize and visually track events, people, periods, locations people spend time on, etc Like you ask.

Microsoft History Timeline

You certainly can use the software in your own projects using any type of data.

1st Disclaimer: I have a university degree in Musical Composition (ESMUC, 'Superior' School of Music of Barcelona), my musical thesis is about Time Notation types and techniques. I also have a university degree in History (Univesity Barcelona), and my history thesis is about Roman Calendars & Chronology. Both theses are unpublished, if interested, I can provide access.

2nd Disclaimer: This answer contains personal references to my work as a professional. I've tryed to stay on topic. I'll edit anything needed to adapt to the guidelines of this forum.

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