Digital Clio


Historical Scholarship in the Digital Age

Tool Review: MIT’s Citeline

The open source tools created by MIT’s SIMILE project can help historians visualize their data in a variety of ways.  One of the project’s newer tools is Citeline, a WYSIWYG exhibit builder for bibliographies.  Recently, I experimented with this tool in constructing an exhibit with citation data for the digital history project I am undertaking. The  tool offers a simple interface for editing publication lists, bibliographies, and other citation information. This tool requires BibTeX files to run. BibTeX files are created by digital bibliographic services such as EndNote and RefWorks. The Citeline frequently asked questions describes how to import BibTeX files into the tool. On the other hand, one using Zotero can download Zotz, a firefox add-on that extends Zotero, to upload data directly to the Citeline service.

This tool is implemented very easily, requiring almost no HTML knowledge as the tool writes all of the code itself. The Zotero route for importing data into the MIT tool seems much simpler and straightforward, particularly if one is familiar with Zotero.  After downloading Zotz, one must simply click export data to Citeline and within seconds, all of the data in the Zotero library is available and usable. Once imported to Citeline, data is presented in a visual exhibit, downloadable and freely usable as an HTML file. The output is an online, multi-faceted interface in which users can investigate, analyze, and query citation data in lists or on a timeline. See the brief skeletal exhibit I created here. This output seems to combine Simile’s exhibit and timeline tools, by directing them towards citation data.

There are drawbacks to the Citeline tool. First, it has to be built with BibTeX or from Zotero data, so if one is unfamiliar with RefWorks, EndNote, or Zotero, they will find it difficult to develop a citation exhibit. Second, some of the data seems to get lost in translation. Data that is input into Zotero sometimes does not show up in the exhibit at all, and with some of the URL’s in particular, the data emerges incorrectly. One frustrating bit concerning this aspect is that the creator cannot change any of the data on the Citeline side, they have to try to re-work it in the other data management system (i.e. Zotero, RefWorks), re-import it and hope that it comes out correctly, which sometimes does not happen. To reiterate, that data cannot be altered in Citeline, which can be very frustrating.

One last bit concerning URL’s and hyperlinks, it is difficult to interconnect the exhibit with the rest of one’s website or existing project. For instance, trying to link from the exhibit to sources or other parts of one’s project is a one-way street. While one may be able to link from the Citeline exhibit to your transcribed sources that is about as far as the interconnectivity goes. Third, not everything that a creator has done in creating their exhibit shows up in the downloaded HTML version. In my creation, for example, I made a query that connected keywords and sources together. The downloaded HTML version does not show that capability. Finally, Citeline currently only works in Firefox browsers, so anyone attempting to view your citation data using Internet Explorer or Safari will only be able to see fragmented information, if anything at all.

In terms of this tool’s usefulness for engaging historical research, many factors stand out. When analyzing one’s own data, visualizing the sources, being able to search through them, and making connections via different categories allows one to interact with and ask questions of their sources that they may not be able to ask when looking at a list. The interactive features of search, combining types or sources, connecting keywords, and timelines allow deeper inspection of source material. How and why is this or are these sources used? What types of sources are being used? Are certain sources emphasized over others? Why? When were the sources created? What was going on at that time? What perspectives do these sources advocate? Questions such as these can help a historian think through some source-based issues and help them visualize the extent of their research.

One other great feature about this tool is its ability to insert an abstract for each source. This serves, in a more limited way, like the historiography section in The Differences Slavery Made. Here the creator can indicate how and why a source was used, while providing the reader with information regarding the general nature of the source. Historians can choose to engage their audience further with this tool by providing synopses of the sources, the relationship to the argument, and answer the question why it is used as a source. Further, the user or audience can engage with, investigate, and analyze the sources in an interesting way.

The best current resource online for historians interested in using Citeline is the Simile blog, as not much else is available due to the newness of the tool. The Citeline user’s guide proved valuable as well. To see how someone implemented this tool for their research see


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