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What is Neatline?

Neatline is what you get when you cross archives and artifacts with timelines, modern and historical maps, and an appreciation for the interpretive aims of humanities scholarship.

Why use Neatline?

Neatline is a geotemporal exhibit-builder that allows you to create beautiful, complex maps, image annotations, and narrative sequences from Omeka collections of archives and artifacts, and to connect your maps and narratives with timelines that are more-than-usually sensitive to ambiguity and nuance. Neatline lets you make hand-crafted, interactive stories as interpretive expressions of a single document or a whole archival or cultural heritage collection. You can import these documents (georeferenced historical maps, manuscripts, high-res photographs, etc.) from an existing collection, or create a new digital archive, yourself. Every Neatline exhibit is your contribution to humanities scholarship, in the visual vernacular.

The Scholars’ Lab designed Neatline as a suite of plugins for the open-source Omeka framework, which provides a powerful platform for management and publication of the collection on which your exhibit is built. Through Neatline, you can create create rich representations of places, objects, events, narratives, and documents — like these demo exhibits.

What makes it different?

How does Neatline fit into the existing ecosystem of geospatial and annotation tools? Neatline sits in the space between consumer-grade mapping applications like the Google custom map-maker and heavyweight, analytical GIS tools like ArcGIS. It’s not Google Maps or Google Earth: if you just need to drop some labelled pins on a map, Neatline may be overkill for your project.

Neatline is designed to be simple enough that college undergraduates can easily use it for class assignments, but also sufficiently flexible, scalable, and feature-rich that it can be used for professional scholarship, journalism, and art. Neatline keeps things simple and provides sensible defaults, but it’s careful never to make intellectual or aesthetic decisions on your behalf.

Neatline Project Examples

Neatline works best when you’re using it to tell a story or create an interpretive lens to better understand a collection of artifacts, documents, or richly-described concepts. Do you have a collection to build on, or do you want to create a searchable Omeka collection while you’re mapping and annotating? Is the aesthetic dimension of your visualization important? Do you want to show that contested, conflicting readings of the same dataset are possible? Neatline is for you.

Here are some examples of the kinds of projects that could be built (or have been built!) with Neatline:

  • Wordsworth in the Alps: In Book Sixth of The Prelude, “Cambridge and the Alps,” Wordsworth describes his 1790 grand tour of Europe, culminating in the famous description of the crossing of Simplon Pass in the Alps. You want to create an interactive edition of the poem that traces Wordsworth’s journey from Cambridge across the channel to Calais, south through France, into the Alps, and along the Stockalper trail over the pass. How does Wordsworth’s description of the sequence of towns and landmarks map onto the actual geography of the area?

  • The Declaration of Independence: The signatures at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence are iconic - we can all recognize John Hancock and Thomas Jefferson, but what about the rest? You want to create an interactive edition of the document that traces out visual annotations around each of the signatures that connects it to a short biography - who they were, where they came from, and how they ended up signing the declaration. With the signatories in place, you then provide a transcription of the declaration itself, and link the individual sentences or words in the text to the corresponding locations on the high-resolution scan of the original document.

  • Minard’s Napoleon Infographic: Charles Minard’s 1869 diagram showing the gradual depletion of the French army over the course of Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia is a seminal work in the history of information design. You want to take high-resolution scan of Minard’s original graphic, overlay it on top of modern satellite geography, and layer on an interactive reimagination of the original material - trace out the components of Minard’s flowchart, add background information about each of the cities and rivers marked along the route, and link individual objects on the map to paragraphs and sentences in a narrative that describes the history of the invasion.

  • Whitman’s “Salut au Monde”: “Salut au Monde” is an index of Whitman’s geographic imagination, an expansive catalog of cities, countries, regions, landmarks, oceans, rivers, and cultures. You want to create a rich interactive edition of the poem by layering the actual text on top of modern satellite imagery and connecting each of the of geospatial references to hand-selected (and at times highly interpretive) focus locations on the map - the “Amazon” to the expansive, dark green rainforests in Brazil, the “northern blasts” to the glaciers in the Brooks Range, etc.

  • Hotchkiss at Chancellorsville: Jedediah Hotchkiss, a military cartographer for the Confederacy during the Civil War, spent the rest of his life revisiting maps he made during the war, sketching in marginalia and marking off troop locations. In one instance, he printed a series of three identical engravings of the area around Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg and sketched in the positions of the Union and Confederate armies on each of the three days of the Battle of Chancellorsville with colored pencils. You want to create an exhibit that positions the three maps on top of modern satellite imagery of the battle field and layers on a second layer of visual annotation about the maps - the movement of the armies in the weeks leading up to the battle, Lee’s risky decision to split his army and leave half of his force behind at Fredericksburg, and why Jackson decided to perform a risky flanking maneuver on the morning of the first day.

  • The Chelyabinsk Meteor: On February 15, 2013, a 10,000-ton meteor streaked over the city of Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains, producing a massive airburst that shattered windows and collapsed buildings. The explosion occurred during the morning rush hour, and the event was captured by dozens of commuters with dashboard-mounted video cameras. You want to create an exhibit that traces out the trajectory of the meteor as it enters the atmosphere and traverses the airspace over the city, and plot out the exact position and orientation of each of the recordings relative to the location of the airburst.

  • A geographic and institutional map of 20th century literary theory: We tend to identify clusters of literary critics with universities, cities, and countries – the Yale school, Russian formalism, Marxism and the Frankfurt School, etc. You want to plot the institutional affiliations and career arcs of ~100 prominent 20th century literary theorists, grouped by critical school, to explore to what extent the real-world locations and temporal overlaps of various critics do or do not correspond with the conceptual connections that emerge in their work. Use Neatline’s map and timeline features, and import relevant pieces of evidence into Omeka.

  • An interactive narrative of the early British Mount Everest expeditions: Did George Mallory and Andrew Irvine make it to the summit on June 8th, 1924? Use contemporary satellite imagery, built into Neatline. as you create a map showing the climbing lines that the parties followed on their summit attempts, the conjectured routes that Mallory may have taken, and the location of his body when it was discovered in 1999. The phases of the climb can be plotted as spans on the timeline, and minute-by-minute accounts from the Odell diaries, brought into Omeka as discrete objects, can be captured as points on the map and timeline.

  • A visualization of the movements of characters and concepts in The Tempest: Shakespeare’s play takes place in a indeterminate aesthetic space, an island outside the moving world — and yet the literal, spatial movements of its characters are described in significant detail. You can draw and scan your own map, or import a Renaissance-era map of an island in the Mediterranean (or the West Indies, or the Carribean) to create a speculative, playful plotting of the spatial dimension of the text — Prospero’s lair, the shipwreck, the carousing of Caliban and Trinculo, Ariel’s errands, and the journey back to Italy.

I’m ready to play. Let’s get started!

Swell! Check out our Exhibit Showcase to see what others have built using Neatline.

Find a starting place for your project with our Use Case Guides.

Read the full documentation:

Neatline Classic Guide Neatline S Guide

Download Neatline for your own Omeka installation:

Download for Omeka Classic Download for Omeka S

Go straight to the source:

Neatline Classic Neatline S