History Commons Groups

December 2, 2008

Inputting Entries for Newbies

Filed under: community — kevinfenton @ 2:02 pm

I understand that some new people are going to start inputting entries due to the grants thing. I thought that this would be a good time to post on this blog a guide I wrote, probably over a year ago now, for people who are gearing up to do battle with the add entry wizard. Guys, you might find this useful; then again, you might not.

This guide is a series of recommendations to help those new to the History Commons website to input entries. When an entry is input, or existing entry amended, a certain quantity of information has to be input with it, so that the entry appears correctly in the timeline and so that the information in the entry can be checked by other project members and members of the public. This process can be a little tricky for those not familiar with it and these recommendations set out one of the easiest ways of getting information to appear in a timeline.

What information has to be input?
You are required to input:
(a) The date of the event, so it can be placed in the timeline;
(b) The title of the event;
(c) A code for the entry, so the entry can be cross-referenced by other entries (note: this is generated automatically in some timelines);
(d) The text of the entry;
(e) Sources for all information contained in the entry. The timeline is not like Wikipedia when a contributor inputs some text and then, if he feels like it, provides some links. All information must be sourced;
(f) Information about the sources, generally: type of source, author, publication, date, and URL (if available).

(1) Setting out an entry so it can be input easily
(2) Inputting the text of an entry
(3) Inputting source information

(1) Setting out an entry so it can be input easily
You have contacted a timeline manager and discussed a topic you are going to be writing about and he has OK’d one or more entries you have drafted. You are now ready to input your first entry. The first thing you may want to do, in order to make inputting easier, is to lay out the information in the optimum manner in a word processing application such as MS Word or Open Office. In fact, it may be easiest for you to follow this format from the very start when drafting entries, so you don’t have to redraft them to make inputting simpler.

Note that if you like you can enter the information directly into the online entry form. However, things don’t always go as planned and there’s a chance you might get some kind of error, or the website goes down, etc… and you’ll lose a lot of work. So it’s safer to do most of the work in a word processing program and then transfer it over.

Here’s a sample about an associate of the 9/11 hijackers, Zacarias Moussaoui, being sentenced to life in prison. Comments are in green:

May 3, 2006 – this is the date at which the entry will show up in the timeline, you will cut and paste it when you input this entry.

a050306escapesdeathpenalty – this is the internal code for the entry. Some timelines use the automatic codes that are generated for them. For the 9/11 timeline, the format for a code is traditionally comprised of three sections: (1) the letter “a”, (2) the date of the entry (050306 = May 3, 2006; or the time, such as “946” in a day of 9/11 entry), and (3) a text to help people remember what the entry is about, “escapesdeathpenalty” in this case. You think the code up yourself. This code will also be cut and pasted.

Moussaoui Escapes Death Penalty by One VoteThe title and the start of the entry should form a pair that attract the reader’s attention. The first sentence(s) in the text should expand on the information contained in the title. The title will also be cut and pasted. Please check the guidelines if you are unsure which first letters of words should be capitalised in a title. Basically, capitalise everything except articles, prepositions (regardless of length), subordinate conjunctions, and the to in an infinitive verb phrase.

The whole of the following text block will be cut and pasted into the text box on the add entry screen. If you format it like this, you will save yourself a lot of work and hassle, as it can just be cut and pasted and there is no need to do anything else.

Zacarias Moussaoui is sentenced to life in prison for not revealing details of the 9/11 plot when arrested. Moussaoui has already pleaded guilty and in the first part of the two-part trial the jury decides that he is eligible for the death penalty (see [[a030606moussaouitrial]]) This is an internal link. It will not show up like this in the text readers see. It will show up there as “(see March 6, 2006-May 4, 2006)”, which is the date of the entry with the code a030606moussaouitrial. Internal links are used to draw the reader’s attention to other relevant entries, but should not be overused. Some entries need no internal links, as their context will be apparent to the reader from the surrounding entries in the chapter they are reading. The text continues:

In the second part the jury is to decide whether he should actually receive the death penalty. Moussaoui is charged on several counts and can be executed on three of them. Although most jurors vote in favour of the death penalty on these three counts (10-2, 10-2 and 11-1), it is unable to reach a unanimous verdict on any of them, meaning Moussaoui will not be executed. The foreman of the jury will later say that the other jurors are frustrated because the ballots are anonymous and, although the issues are discussed, the holdout never comes forward with dissenting opinions: “But there was no yelling. It was as if a heavy cloud of doom had fallen over the deliberation room, and many of us realized that all our beliefs and our conclusions were being vetoed by one person… We tried to discuss the pros and cons. But I would have to say that most of the arguments we heard around the deliberation table were [in favor of the death penalty]… Our sense was this was a done deal for that person and whoever that person is, they were consistent from the first day and their point of view didn’t change.” The holdout, who remains anonymous, tells the Washington Post that he voted for life in prison because he thinks Moussaoui’s role in 9/11 was peripheral.
[[ Washington Post | 5/12/2006 ]]

This is a source. All text must be sourced. Since this snippet of text based on one article has come to an end, now we have to finish the snippet with the sourcing information. Please place the sources in such a manner that readers can reasonably tell which information came from where. If you have a long entry based on 10 sources, don’t just put all the sources at the bottom. Place them after the relevant sections of text. This entry is based on two sources; the information from the Washington Post is followed by a link to the Washington Post article, the information from Associated Press is followed by a link to the Associated Press article. Generally, sources are input like this: (1) open brackets twice “[[”, (2) name of publication / government agency “Washington Post” (3) vertical line “|”, (4) date of publication “5/12/2006”, and (5) close brackets twice “]]”.
Sources based on books and government reports look slightly different, having an extra section for the page reference, for example:
[[ Lance | 2006 | 378-9 ]]
The order is: author’s surname (if there are two authors then it’s “Hamilton + Kean”), year of publication, page reference. If you get any part of this wrong, for instance you put one bracket where you should have put two, you’ll get an error and be asked to fix it until you get it right.

This is a line of six dashes. These dashes divide the snippets of information from different sources that make up an entry. Make sure there is a line of six dashes before the first block of text in the entry. After each block of text there is a source, on a separate line. After the source there is an empty line. If there is another block of text following the first bloc, after the empty line there is a row of six dashes. After that another block of text starts. There is no row of six dashes after the last block of text and source in an entry (but there’s a line of six equal signs instead). Here’s the second snippet of text after the dashes:

Moussaoui receives six life sentences, which he is to serve at the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. He then attempts to withdraw his guilty plea, but the judge tells him, “You do not have a right to appeal your convictions, as was explained to you when you plead guilty. You waived that right.”
[[ Associated Press | 5/8/2006 ]]

This is the end of the second snippet and the end of the entry.


This line of equal signs marks the end of the entry. But there’s still some more information that goes below the equal signs, relating to the “entities” such as the names of people, organizations, companies, and so on that are mentioned in the entry.

((- Zacarias Moussaoui )) – This is a list of the entities that will be tagged for the entry. Entities, mostly people or organisations, can be tagged as active or passive participants in an entry, or as observers. An active participant in an entry does something active. For example, in an entry called “Cheney Shoots Lawyer in Face” Cheney is an active participant, because he shot an old guy in the face, so here you would write “((+ Richard (“Dick”) Cheney ))” (note: the plus sign (“+”) is used to denote active participation). In the case of the above entry, Zacarias Moussaoui is more of a passive participant, so there is a minus sign (“-“), denoting passive participation, before his name. An observer is a person who comments (usually later) on the event. For example, in the Cheney shoots lawyer entry we could have a quote from Juan Cole, saying that the lawyer came off lightly compared to Iraq. In this case we would have the entity “((@ Juan Cole ))”, as the sign “@” is used to denote observer status. The entity tags will later be cut and pasted as a block.

Note that this particular entry about Moussaoui only has one entity listed. There are jurors and judges mentioned in the entry text, but we don’t know or mention their names so they aren’t listed as entities. The Washington Post is mentioned in the text, but sources like that usually aren’t listed as entities unless they’re more important to the story.

Moussaoui Foreman Recalls Frustration
by Timothy Dwyer
The Washington Post
May 12, 2006

Moussaoui Withdraws Guilty Plea
by Michael J. Sniffen
The Associated Press
May 8, 2006

This is a list of sources with details, which will come in useful when adding sources (see (3) below). If you don’t have a handy list like this, you may spend ages looking for the sources around the internet. Please also cache all sources on YOUR hard drive, as they may be requested at some point.

Category It is helpful to list the categories of the relevant timeline you think the entry should go in. In this case, there’s only one category that fits:

Here’s another bog-standard entry, without the comments in green, just in case they confused you:

July 1999
Campaign Finance Report Criticizes ‘Wall’ Procedures
The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General issues a report into the FBI’s use of intelligence information in an investigation into campaign finance, and this report is critical of the “wall”. The “wall” regulates the passage of some information from FBI intelligence investigations to criminal FBI agents and prosecutors, to ensure such information can legitimately be used in court (see [[a80wallarises]]). After the procedures were formalized (see [[a071995wallmemo]]), the FBI drastically reduced its consultations with Justice Department attorneys about intelligence investigations, because approval for an intelligence warrant from the Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR) was needed for this, and any such consultation with Justice Department attorneys could result in an intelligence warrant not being granted. The result is that the FBI does not ask for input from prosecutors until it is ready to close an intelligence investigation and “go criminal.” The campaign finance report finds that FBI failed to disclose some information from intelligence investigations not only to Congress and the Attorney General, but also to its own Director, Louis Freeh. The “wall” procedures are found to be vague and ineffective, as well as misunderstood and often misapplied.
[[ US Department of Justice | 11/2004 | 32-33 ]]

The “wall” procedures are also criticized by other reports (see [[a0500wallcriticisedagain]]).

Counterterrorism before 9/11

((- Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act ))
((+ US Department of Justice ))
((- Federal Bureau of Investigation ))

A Review of the FBI’s Handling of Intelligence Information Related to the September 11 Attacks
US Department of Justice, Office of Inspector General
November 2004

(2) Inputting the text of an entry
You have now set out your entry and it is time to input it. Here is a description of the process in easy steps:
(a)(i) Go to the relevant timeline homepage at the CCR website;
(ii) Log in;
(iii) Click on the link to the relevant chapter, or the text “View all events for this timeline.”
(iv) Click on “add event.” You should now be able to see the “Add Event” screen.
(v) If you have not yet read the Writing Guidelines, this is probably a good time to skim through them.

(b)(i) You now need to cut and paste information from your word processor application to the add entry screen. Shrink your browser application so that it occupies only the top half of the screen. Open the text of the entry in your word processor application and shrink it so it occupies the bottom half of your screen.
(ii) Cut and paste the date of the entry from your word processor into the box marked “[Display Date]”
(iii) If appropriate, cut and paste the new entry code over the old entry code, which will probably be something like “complete_911_timeline_3167”.
(iv) Cut and paste the title into the box marked “[Display Date]”.

(c)(i) In the text box there is a row of six dashes – “——“. Leave them alone.
(ii) Cut and paste the entire text of the entry, including sources, over the words “Write a summary of the event here. You must provide at least one source.” If you have Firefox 2.0, then a spellcheck will be performed automatically. Otherwise, if you want to do a spellcheck you can use the Google toolbar, which you can find here:
(iii) There is a row of equals signs under this – “======”. Leave them alone.
(iv) Copy and paste the list of entities under the row of equals signs.

(d) Click on the “Topics and Countries” tab. Read through the options and check boxes for the relevant topics and countries. For example, if you have an entry about US policy to the Guatemala, you tick the topic “Foreign Policy” and the countries “United States of America” and “Guatemala”.

(e) New contributors cannot see the categories tab, but when it starts appearing, you should start to tick the relevant boxes there. If you cannot input the categories the entry should go in, it may be helpful to write which categories the entry should be added to in the comments box in the top right.

(f) Ensure that the box marked “Drafts of this entry can be viewed and edited by other project members” is checked.

(g) Click on preview. Everything should be perfect. If it is not (punctuation error discovered late), fix it.

(h) One problem you may have here is that you have input an entity the timeline does not recognise. If, after clicking on “Preview”, the timeline comes back with an error message about an unknown entity, you have to fix this. Click on the “Entities” tab and input a word or two from the entity’s name in the search box, then press “Perform search”. If the entity you want appears, add it to the entry by pressing “add” and then check that the correct symbol (+, -, or @) is in front of the entity (don’t forget to delete your old, incorrect version of the entity as well). If the entity still does not show up, click on “Add new entity” then fill out the form there with at least the type of entity and its name. Confirm the new entity and try previewing again.

(i) Click on “Save and work on later” to go to the add source wizard.

(3) Inputting source information
There are various ways to input source information.
(a) Inputting a source that is already in the database.
(i) The source is already in the database and you know the source code
The easiest option is to find/know the code for a source, then the add entry wizard knows what you want and you do not have to input any additional information. All sources have codes; for example the code for the 9/11 Commission Report is {{642723850-6923}}, so when you go to an entry that has already been input that uses the 9/11 Commission as a source, you will see that the source shows up like this:
[[ 9/11 Commission | 7/24/2004 | 165 {{642723850-6923}}  ]]

If you input a source like this with the code, you don’t go to the add entry wizard for that entry and this makes your life easier.

(ii) The source is already in the database but you don’t know the source code
Step 1: After clicking on “Save and Work on Later”, the first thing the add source wizard does is show you a list of sources it thinks MIGHT be the same as the one you want to input. If there is a list, look at it and see if the source you want is there. If so, preview and use that.

Step 2: If you can’t see the source you want in the list of suggestions, but think it might be in the database, you can try to search for it. Input a few words from the source’s title into the search field and then click on the “search” button. The add entry wizard will display a list of sources it thinks you might want below the Search button. If one of them is right, preview and then confirm it.

Attention: If steps 1 and 2 do not work, or if you miss one or both of them out, but the source you want is in the database, it may appear on the right hand side of the screen while you are inputting source information. If the add entry wizard displays a correct source while you are inputting, please use it. The less duplicate sources we have, the faster the system will be.

(iii) The source is not already in the database
First select the source type. Is it a media article, interview, executive department document, court document, what? Then input the mandatory information into the bolded fields. Basically you need the title of the source, the name of the publisher, and the date, which you should have handily noted down in your word processor file. You can also input a URL, the physical author, and any other optional information (for example the ISBN for books). If you don’t understand what information a field is asking for, click on the question mark next to it and all will be explained.

When you have finished inputting all the sources, that is the end and you will go back to the main timeline, where you can find your newly input entry with the word “DRAFT” written all over it. Now I suggest you take a break and come back the next day with a fresh mind. Re-read your entry, click on the edit button, fix any problems, then click on “Submit” to send it into the editing process. After you have clicked on “Submit”, you will not be able to edit your entry until it has been edited by the editors.


  1. Kevin, great minds think alike. I’m in the process of creating a browser-based “Dummies” guide for new contributors, in the fashion of the “Whatever for Dummies” guidebooks. Between your blog entry and my Web page, we should cover pretty much all the bases.

    Folks, if you’re submitting entries, or attempting to, please comment on your experiences in this post or my similar post further down the page. We want to know what works and what doesn’t.

    Comment by Max — December 2, 2008 @ 5:27 pm | Reply

  2. This is going to be very helpful–both “For Dummies” and Kevin’s run-down. A few questions: 1) Once approved( edited and published/posted)how might the original submitter go back in and alter an item in view of discovering new info. that might change the emphasis of a source summary or is that summary “written in cement”? 2) As the submitter adds more entries, is the time-line automatically adjusted to fit the additional entry in chronologically–and if so, in what order? For instance, let’s say I enter an item for a particular date and then a month later come across another item for the same date–will these items now be automatically ordered by the date on which they were retrieved, peer-edited, posted, or by what system? Does the original submitter have any control of or responsibility for the on-going chronology(ordering) of the items in relation to each other?


    Comment by Rachael Flynt — December 5, 2008 @ 9:46 pm | Reply

  3. Rachael, glad to have you on the blog. Excellent questions. I will make sure both are addressed in the entry guide.

    >>Once approved( edited and published/posted)how might the original submitter go back in and alter an item in view of discovering new info. that might change the emphasis of a source summary or is that summary “written in cement”?

    Any contributor can go in and add, delete, or edit information on a post. Your point about the discovery of new information is spot on. We often go back and include new data in particular entries. Nothing is “written in cement.”

    >>As the submitter adds more entries, is the time-line automatically adjusted to fit the additional entry in chronologically–and if so, in what order? For instance, let’s say I enter an item for a particular date and then a month later come across another item for the same date–will these items now be automatically ordered by the date on which they were retrieved, peer-edited, posted, or by what system? Does the original submitter have any control of or responsibility for the on-going chronology(ordering) of the items in relation to each other?

    The short answer is “kinda.” If I’m reading your comment correctly, my longer answer is “let’s ask Derek.” I’ve never known how the system ranks entries made on the same date–which ones come first, why one entry is placed behind another one, etc. It’s a good question, and one I’ve pondered before.

    If I understand WordPress correctly, now that you’ve had your first comment approved, everything else you post should appear immediately. Thanks!

    Comment by Max — December 6, 2008 @ 9:29 am | Reply

  4. Thanks for this guide! I’ll be looking back at it often.

    One question: Is there a preference for sources being found online? Well, books of course are good offline sources. But how does the History Commons confirm then the accuracy of an offline source being referred? And is there a limit to the kinds of offline references for entries? Does a brochure, leaflet, paper submitted in a conference, stand on equal terms as online sources?

    Comment by joelgarduce — December 9, 2008 @ 6:37 am | Reply

  5. Joel, good questions. We figure that if a relatively reputable publisher prints a book, then it’s by definition “reliable” enough to be used as a source. Conference papers I would say are usually okay, depending on the conference and its sponsors/participants (crazy people can host conferences, too). As far as pamphlets, brochures, etc, I’ve honestly not seen that come up, so it would have to be on a case-by-case basis. Again, it would have a lot to do with who wrote and published the leaflet, etc.

    I’d love to hear from some of the other regulars on this question.

    Comment by Max — December 9, 2008 @ 2:29 pm | Reply

  6. Joel,

    (1) There is a mild preference for online sources, because it’s nice if the readers can click on a link and see the source. However, you can use books by reputable authors published by reputable publishing houses. That’s no problem.

    (2) Confirming accuracy. We can buy the book or find it online. Most entries are fairly non-controvertial anyway so it is not really a problem and the same information can be found elsewhere. Also, we generally know a bit about the topics and can spot something that is off. A content editor can request a source, so if something you input is based on a book, it’s better to have the book, or at least photocopy, or even type in the relevant passages.

    (3) Depends who the brochure, leaflet or paper is by. Should really be a reputable source.

    Aside: obviously, you can cite disreputable sources as well, but not for events external to the source. For example, if you really wanted to write an entry called “Crazy Man Writes Pamphlet”, then you should definitely cite the pamphlet written by the crazy man as a source, as the actual pamphlet is better proof of its own existence than any number of articles in the NYT. However, the pamphlet by the crazy man is not evidence of the veracity of the claims contained therein, which should generally not be mentioned outside the entry about its publication. I know that sounds odd, but it makes sense when Derek explains it.

    On the other hand, it’s about trust. We only use professional work, but if an amateur blogger had a photo that we were convinced was genuine, then we could use that as evidence of whatever it showed. Obviously, this has never happened yet. Do we trust the source? Will the readers trust it?

    Comment by kevinfenton — December 9, 2008 @ 3:05 pm | Reply

  7. I just like the idea of writing the “Crazy Man Writes Pamphlet” entry. Maybe we could use this as the pic…

    Comment by Max — December 9, 2008 @ 5:51 pm | Reply

  8. K … 1 multi-faceted aspect is confusing me: dates. Using my 1st attempt as case in point, Kissinger in China, November 1973.

    1) the date I’m entering it
    2) the date I retrieved the document from the web
    3) the date the page was published
    4) the date the document being described was released to the public
    5) the date the document was originally created
    6) the date the event took place.

    I’m a lazy person: the solution that comes to mind is to code an XML input form for myself.😉


    Comment by @bentrem — June 19, 2010 @ 11:08 pm | Reply

  9. Hi Ben. Nice job finding this post in the blog, I had forgotten where it was and played hell digging it out.

    Don’t code an XML input form, though if you’re XML-savvy and want to get your hands dirty, you and I have a lot to talk about!

    E-mail me: mtuck at historycommons dot org

    In the meantime, check this site out for help in posting entries:


    (Thanks for following me on Twitter, but I never check the account. Best to e-mail me or message me at my Facebook account.)

    — Max/Mike

    Comment by Max — June 19, 2010 @ 11:58 pm | Reply

  10. HiYa – Oh I was kidding about doing that; I’m capable, but it takes me hours to do what a true programmer could get done in wey less. I know how good the pros are!
    For sure will email … BTW you might want to obfuscate your address a bit. There are still plenty of harvesters around.

    And yes I peeked the “For Dummies” post. There’s a lot of material there, a whole lot. (Maybe I’ll do a slice&dice on that?) I didn’t find what I needed on a quick 1st read, but will persist.


    Comment by @bentrem — June 20, 2010 @ 12:29 am | Reply

  11. For the sake of completeness:
    * History Commons: Entries for “Dummies”
    * Karen’s Walkthrough for Creating Entries

    Comment by @bentrem — June 20, 2010 @ 12:36 am | Reply

  12. Obfuscated. Duh, I’m not thinking (late night here). Definitely drop a line with questions, comments, observations, gripes and bitching, etc.🙂

    Comment by Max — June 20, 2010 @ 12:49 am | Reply

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