A Digital Historical Resource

Timeline for the Federal Theatre Project collection at George Mason University

At work I’ve been spending the past two years or so on a project to reprocess the Federal Theatre Project collection. This collection was one of the founding collections of Special Collections & Archives. It was brought to George Mason University in the 1970s from the Library of Congress and the Research Center for the Federal Theatre Project was created and was active until the 1990s. This was a 20 year project that included thousands of hours of staff time in the cataloging, indexing, arranging, and describing of the collection. Names were cross indexed and every item was cataloged. This was a collection extremely well processed. But by the time I came to work for Special Collections & Archives the collection was greatly diminished, since most of the materials had returned to the Library of Congress, and the original work done through meticulous cataloging was of little use. Trying to determine the organizational structure that was so detailed and item level would have taken longer than starting over and creating a new way to describe the collection.

Today at the Library of Congress the collection fills 1,475 containers, at GMU the Federal Theatre Project material is divided into five main collections the largest of which is 371 boxes: The FTP collection, The FTP photograph collection, The FTP personal papers, The Works Progress Administration oral histories, and the as of yet unprocessed, The FTP GMU collection.  There are also about ten or so larger collections donated by people who worked in the FTP listed under their names. As we reprocessed the collection we noticed it was a sort of jumble of materials and we worked to suss out the different threads of provenance and material type. But it was an odd feeling processing the collections and only having a vague knowledge of the work others had put into it. Through looking at the accession files and reading the newsletter “Federal One” that the Research Center wrote, I’m starting to get a better understanding of the passion and dedication that was felt for this collection.

The FTP collection is one of SC&A’s most used collections and there are hundreds of researchers who used the collection in the 1970s to the 1990s at GMU. They would probably not recognize the collection today, in that it is so much smaller and more fragmented. Researchers today are curious as to why GMU has a Federal Theatre Project collection, and are usually intrigued at the story that the Library of Congress put the materials on deposit with GMU. For my digital resource I’d like to make a timeline that follows the history of the collection from its creation to its current state at GMU.

I envision the timeline to be a resource that can be added to in the future as the SC&A department sees fit. For the moment I’d like the timeline to cover the big event changes in the collection location based on a chronology I created a year ago for the department. Making the chronology into a timeline would be beneficial to the department and researchers in that it would be easily accessible online.

Two timeline tools that I looked at in detail were the Tiki-Toki Timeline and Timeline JS. There are a number of timeline tools available but these seemed to be well reviewed and easy to set up. My criteria consisted of four main points: attractive design, ease of use, works with WordPress, and free. Attractive design is the most important criteria because that determines to a certain extent how engaging the timeline will be.

I am impressed by the 1913 Amory Show: The Story in Primary Sources timeline by the Archives of American Art created using Tiki-Toki. The timeline is visually engaging and I like the features of color coding different themes, and incorporating large images.


I started by signing up for an account using Tiki-Toki and was dismayed to find that a free account allows for the creation of only one timeline and includes ads. I thought it might still be worthwhile to pursue, but became frustrated with other limitations to the free account such as not being able to embed the timeline elsewhere. Ultimately it seemed that Tiki-Toki wouldn’t be able to be integrated into SC&A’s web presence as it already exists for free.

Timeline JS is an open source timeline making tool that has good design, is easy to use, and is easy to incorporate into SC&A’s blog. I liked this tool because there is no account creation needed to use the tool. This is important when we need to transfer the data between coworkers. The data is entered into a Google spreadsheet, enabling sharing and collaboration. Unlike Tiki-Toki this timeline shows one event at a time and has more of a story layout because of it. Tips on the Timeline JS website include:

  1. Keep it short, and write each event as a part of a larger narrative.
  2. Pick stories that have a strong chronological narrative. It does not work well for stories that need to jump around in the timeline.
  3. Include events that build up to major occurrences — not just the major events.

Because of this I’m finding myself editing my original chronology a lot and trying to create more of a story where each event is easy to understand in relation to the whole. I’m hoping to continue to add content over the next few weeks and write a blog post introducing it as a new digital resource. Overall I’m hoping this will be an interesting resource to researchers and GMU staff and students.


4 thoughts on “A Digital Historical Resource

  1. Was the FTP collection loaned to GMU? It’s interesting how some of the collection has trickled back to the LOC. Was this planned? Also, I hate reprocessing collections. I’m dealing with a backlog of collections that were “cataloged” in the 70’s, but never made it into our current web-based database. Any sort of cataloging that was done does not meet current standards…..amazing.

    1. The FTP collection was put on deposit at GMU in the 1970s and was recalled in the early 1990s. There was some fight put up to keep the collection at GMU but LC was well within reason to recall it. About 100 boxes of duplicate material remained at GMU and that’s what our FTP collection consists of for the most part. GMU also collected oral histories, papers, scrapbooks, and photographs from individuals who worked for the FTP and those collections all belong to GMU and are our strong point for unique materials relating to the FTP.

  2. Greta,

    I think this tool is a neat idea. It’s important to preserve the creation and building of archives and collections, especially for future archivists and researchers. The addition of a timeline would be an easy and accessible way to start.

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