Adams Family Legacy: Visualizing the World of an American Presidential Family

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Sara B. Sikes

    Massachusetts Historical Society

  2. 2. Caitlin Christian-Lamb

    Davidson College

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Spanning the years 1735 to 1889, the Adams Timeline ( is a searchable collection of key events and happenings in the lives of 2nd U.S. President John Adams, First Lady Abigail Adams and three succeeding generations of their immediate family. Members of the Adams family were deeply involved a tumultuous era of American history and were keen observers of national and domestic politics, as well as the daily activities on their beloved family farm. The collection of Adams Family Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society is the most comprehensive and historically complete family collection held by any American cultural institution. While forming the basis of numerous digital and analog resources, this vast body of material lacked a coherent summation of major personalities and collection highlights.
The creation of the Adams timeline achieves the dual results of a streamlined presentation of historical data and fulfillment of a need in the research community. A diverse audience ranging from published scholars to schoolchildren land directly on this resource when searching for biographical information on the Adams family and access an interactive organization of key data points. Residing on the website of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the timeline acts as a portal for locating different types of Adams family information held by the Society. This was an initially unforeseen benefit of creating the timeline, but the addition of hyperlinks to transcriptions and images of original documents allowed for ready access to related materials, including collections of letters and transcriptions, images of diary entries and annotated documents from our Adams Papers Digital Edition.
This timeline was built as a customized adaptation of the SIMILE timeline module (, part of a suite of open-source data visualization widgets originally developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Designed to handle specific dates, time spans, events, images and links, the timeline is rendered from data in an underlying XML file. Each individual is also encoded with a unique identifier, allowing for filtering of events relevant to a certain person and the creation of a focused timeline for an individual rather than the whole family.
While an earlier version of the timeline was displayed only as a static table, this newly created web tool visualizes temporal information and allows for the analysis of the intersection and overlapping of interrelated events. A well-designed data visualization allows users to quickly spot patterns, trends, clusters, gaps and outliers and fulfills Maureen Stone’s definition of information visualization, as “the creation of graphical representations of data that harness the pattern-recognition skills of the human visual system”.1 The Adams timeline now allows for users to make ready connections through time, understand relations between events and within context and quickly scan a dataset in ways that were not possible within a static table. As Joseph Priestley noted in his 1764 publication of a chronological chart representing historical figures, “the thin and void places in the chart are, in fact, not less instructive than the most crowded.”2 Thus a gap in a timeline may be just as meaningful as an area of high activity and an opportunity for exploration of the underlying causes of such a void.
The aim of this poster presentation is two-fold: to explore the process of creating an XML-based timeline with SIMILE widget; and to demonstrate a possible mode of delivery for the vast stores of information held within the walls of public and private cultural institutions. We will offer an interactive demonstration of our customized adaptation of the SIMILE widget timeline module and solicit input from DH2014 attendees on the methodology and creation of complementary interactive tools. We also seek to explore other possibilities for delivering the wealth of historical data in our collection, currently housed in binders or spreadsheets. We envision this timeline as a first step in designing additional tools, such as a map of Adams family residences or a visualization of the correspondence network of a family deeply connected to early American history.

1. Maureen Stone (2009), Information Visualization: Challenge for the Humanities, Working Together or Apart: Promoting the Next Generation of Digital Scholarship, 145:43–56 (March 2009). Available at
2. Joseph Priestley (1764), A Description of a Chart of Biography, Warrington, Eng.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

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Conference website:

Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO