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History Gets Real: Web-based resource gives 20th-century presidents center stage

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In the movie “Fight Club” the tough and philosophical young character Tyler Durden says, “We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war…our Great Depression is our lives.”

That angst-rich speech struck a chord with Generations X, Y and Z in 1999 when the movie was released, but then all of a sudden a couple of years later there was a terrorist attack on American soil, a great war and a dot-com debacle. History started happening and the world got interesting, even for the young and disenfranchised. History got real.

Herbert Hoover with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone
President Herbert Hoover in Florida with some early 20th-century industrialists: (left to right) Hoover, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone. Photo:
Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

To feel the full force of history, you must realize that you’re living it—making it—and you must have opportunities to vicariously experience the past.

To help people with the latter directive, The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, UT Libraries and the National Archives and Records Administration’s presidential libraries have created an interactive online resource that pulls together hundreds of digitized items from all 12 of the presidential libraries. The Timeline incorporates more than 600 letters, phone conversations, diaries, video and photos from 20th-century U.S. presidencies to bring alive some of the most intense episodes in American history. It was made possible by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as funding from UTOPIA and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation.

“We realized early on that this Timeline would be of interest to a very broad user base,” says Dr. Betty Sue Flowers, director of the LBJ Library and Museum and originator of the concept, “from K-12 educators in the U.S. to an international audience that can use the Web to learn about U.S. history in an engaging, entertaining way.

“We drew upon the expertise of individuals at each of the presidential libraries, K-12 teachers, university faculty, archivists, education specialists and top technology professionals nationwide to accomplish two very important goals—we wanted to exhibit the digitized assets in an educational, compelling way as well as develop educational activities that actually use the Timeline and enhance teachers’ various curricula.”

Young Bill Clinton, holding a saxophone, celebrates his 12th birthday
Bill Clinton celebrating his 12th birthday in 1958 at his home in Hot Springs, Ark. Photo:
William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum

The presidential libraries contributed primary and secondary source materials, many of which previously were available only to serious scholars, and the artifacts offer a rare and fascinating glimpse into the daily life of an American president. This is the first time digitized assets from all of the libraries have been collected in one online location and made available, free of charge, to anyone with Internet access. With the long-term in mind, the Timeline has been designed to accommodate the addition of more thematic timelines as well as future presidents and additional assets.

“One of the most interesting features of the Timeline is that it is built around key events in each presidency,” says Dr. Paul Resta, director of the College of Education’s Learning Technology Center. “These are major historical decision points at which a particular president faced a crisis or other momentous event.

“We have designed the Timeline so that users essentially can assume the role of president for a moment and figuratively step behind the desk in the Oval Office, accessing audio files of President Johnson’s phone conversations regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident, for example. This is an exceptionally effective tool for encouraging students to analyze what they’re learning in history classes and is a great way of using technology to make history leap to life.”

The College of Education’s Learning Technology Center, working closely with Terra Incognita Productions, designed the Timeline and it features a slick, intuitive, cleanly organized Flash-based interface that gives access to timelines of each 20th-century president’s life before, during and after his time in office. Each president’s timeline lets the user view and listen to assets, exhibits and educational activities associated with historical events that occurred during the presidency.

Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson on the campaign trail in 1961
Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson in Minnesota on the campaign trail in 1961. Photo:
Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum

As you scroll through the Timeline, the digitized resources associated with a particular event appear at the bottom of the screen, along with explanatory notes about the event or item. You also can view thematic timelines that address major issues like presidents’ approval ratings or the civil rights movement.

One can see photos of the presidents as children and with their own children in private, unguarded moments. One can hear a president’s voice in phone calls and public addresses as he mediates, commands and entreats during the fury of war, the chaos of race riots or the moments after an assassination. Handwritten White House memos are viewable as well as diary entries from presidents’ wives.

“If someone clicks on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s timeline,” says Dr. Sherry Field, associate dean in the College of Education and a social studies instruction expert, “she can hear Roosevelt’s fireside chats during one of the most terrifying periods of American history and see photos of him inspiring confidence and hope in the public. A tool like this is so valuable because it reminds students that people are people, no matter what the year, decade or century. Children just like them had to live through World War II and the protests during the Viet Nam War.”

video icon AUDIO: Listen to one of President Johnson’s phone conversations featured in the Presidential Timeline. This audio clip from 1964 is of J. Edgar Hoover’s office calling President Johnson to tell him that three civil rights leaders who disappeared in Mississippi after being stopped for speeding have been found, six weeks later, buried.

In designing educational activities to be used with the Timeline, architects of the resource were mindful of how much more meaningful it is to work with archival material than to simply read about history in a textbook.

“The goal of the educational activities,” says Flowers, “is not for students simply to study about history but for them to actually engage in historical research. Activities are structured to require students’ collaborative decision-making and most can be used to create technology- and non-technology-based student intellectual products that meet a broad range of state and national standards. A central theme underlying most of these activities is a focus on major decisions faced by each presidential administration.”

President Roosevelt delivers his 'Day of Infamy' speech to a joint session of Congress on Dec. 8, 1941
President Roosevelt delivers his “Day of Infamy” speech to a joint session of Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Photo:
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum

Students can use basic digital video editing software and the Timeline’s rich archive, for example, to create news stories and short documentary films or use simple page layout software to fashion newspaper and magazine articles. Acting as young “curators,” the students can download high-resolution images of Timeline assets, print them and mount them for an exhibit. Students could even generate text and placards that describe each of the mounted assets and a script and recorded audio tour of the exhibit. The audio tour could be transferred to a portable mp3 player and listened to while one toured the student-created exhibit.

Some propose that history loses its power to teach and move us once it’s in textbooks, that the people who said the words decades ago, did the deeds and made the difficult decisions somehow were not real. The beauty of the Timeline—whether it’s used by an adult learner in Cleveland or an 11-year-old in Stockholm—is that it poignantly gives the abstract a flesh-and-blood immediacy. When one hears Roosevelt state, “This great nation will endure, as it has endured, will revive and will prosper,” he is real and history is alive.

View the presidential timeline. Visit the National Archives online for a list of links to all 12 presidential libraries.

BY Kay Randall

PHOTO on the banner: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum,
Swearing in of Lyndon B. Johnson as President,
Nov. 22, 1963, Air Force One, Love Field, Dallas, Texas.

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  Updated 26 February 2007
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