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American presidents, up close and personal

The College of Education’s Presidential Timeline puts the digitized assets of presidential libraries in the hands of students and educators across the globe.

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Nobody’s saying you can’t travel to each of the National Archives’ presidential libraries to see cool stuff related to 20th-century U.S. presidents. It’s just that you don’t have to.

The Presidential Timeline, a slick, intuitive Web resource created by The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education and their project partners, has digitized resources from all 13 presidential libraries in one spot, and the cache is free and available to anybody with Internet access.

Six years ago the College of Education’s Learning Technology Center (LTC), the National Archives and Records Administration’s presidential libraries, the University of Texas Libraries, and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation teamed up to create this unique, easy-to-use learning tool. The site is filled with audio and video clips, photos and documents such as diaries and letters, many of which were available only to scholars before creation of the timeline.

“The Presidential Timeline is the only comprehensive, Web-based resource of its kind, and it’s impressive for several reasons,” said Sherry Field, associate dean for teacher education, student affairs and administration in the College of Education and a social studies education specialist. “One of its main benefits is that anyone, from elementary school students to university academics, can access so many important primary sources. This means that in many cases you can see presidents’ personal thoughts and plans in their own handwriting rather than simply reading newspaper accounts.”

The timeline for each presidency includes information about the president’s life from childhood onward and is built around key events and crises that occurred during that presidency. Curriculum materials for teachers also are provided.

“For President Johnson, for example, two key events are the Vietnam War and civil rights reforms,” said Field. “Many of these events and issues that presidents have faced can be difficult topics to teach in history and social studies classes — they’re very complex and there are contradictory opinions about the outcomes. The timeline gives students compelling, reliable primary source materials to explore and interpret so that they can begin to draw their own conclusions about history. Analyzing primary sources also engage and develop students’ higher-level critical thinking skills, preparing them for more rigorous coursework in subsequent grades and then later in college.”

The site debuted in 2007 with 12 exhibits and about 600 digital items, and the center has made numerous additions and refinements since then. Today the project features 42 exhibits and more than 2,200 digital objects, with many more to be added in the next few months. Although George W. Bush’s presidential library — to be housed at Southern Methodist University — won’t open until 2013, the timeline already has more than 200 photos and documents from the library’s collection, illustrating about 100 events in Bush’s life.

In 2009 the timeline project began to host a series of summer teacher institutes. History and social studies teachers from around the country are able to attend and learn how to maximize the timeline’s assets, especially the primary source materials, from experts such as Mark Lawrence, a history scholar at The University of Texas at Austin.

In just the past few months seven new exhibits and more than 300 new objects have been added to the project. Now you can explore exhibits on the:

  • catastrophic 1927 Mississippi flood, for which Herbert Hoover coordinated relief efforts
  • desegregation of the armed forces under the Truman administration
  • U-2 spy plane missions during the Eisenhower presidency
  • Oklahoma City bombing during the Clinton presidency
  • breakup of the Soviet Union during the George H.W. Bush presidency

In addition to more than 100 new digital objects that were added to the site as part of these exhibits, the Truman and the Nixon libraries recently contributed nearly 200 items. Ten additional exhibits are expected to go live by the end of the summer, including a “cross-administration exhibit” focused on the topic of energy.

“One of the most exciting projects we’re working on is a ‘create your own timeline’ feature,” said Ken Tothero, LTC manager of the timeline project. “It will be released this spring and allows anybody to create a timeline built around almost any subject. You can create one that illustrates and describes your own personal life, one with the history of your hometown on it or one for science class on which you plot the life cycle of a sockeye salmon.

“It’s very easy to use — with a few clicks you create the timeline and then can start adding events. Each event can be given a title and description, and you can add all kinds of digital assets, like photos or audio recordings or video, to the events. It’s easy to see why most everyone who has tried our beta version describes it as fun.”

The timeline was made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education, as well as additional funding from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation and the University of Texas Libraries.

“Whatever you think of a particular president when he’s in office, that usually alters at least a little bit after his term has ended and some time has passed,” said Paul Resta, the center’s director. “Looking at the photos, videos and documents on the timelines may mean that, for some people, their opinions and conclusions change yet again. Using the timeline, you’ll get to know American presidents in a more entertaining and intimate way than most people have ever been able to experience.”