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Cover of Layered Lives by Taylor Arnold, Courtney Rivard, Lauren Tilton
Layered Lives
Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project
Taylor Arnold, Courtney Rivard, Lauren Tilton


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ISBN: 9781503615281

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The Southern Life History Project, a Federal Writers' Project initiative, put unemployed writers to work during the Great Depression by capturing the stories of everyday people across the Southeast through a new form of social documentation called "life histories."

Layered Lives recovers the history of the Southern Life History Project (SLHP) through an interdisciplinary approach that combines close readings of archival material with computational methods that analyze the collection at scale. The authors grapple with the challenges of what counts as social knowledge, how to accurately represent social conditions, who could produce such knowledge, and who is and is not represented. Embedded within such debates are also struggles over what counts as data, evidence, and ways of knowing. As we look to our current moment, where debates about the opportunities and limits of quantification and the nature of data continue, the problems and promises that shaped the SLHP still shape how we capture and share stories today.

About the authors

Taylor Arnold is Associate Professor of Linguistics and Data Science at the University of Richmond.

Courtney Rivard is Teaching Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Lauren Tilton is Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Richmond.

"Revelatory. The combination of established and new methodologies forces us to rethink what we thought we knew about the archive and gives us fresh ways to see evidence."

—Wesley Hogan, Duke University

"A thoughtful, important history and a genius conceptualization of how writers interpreted and portrayed lives, using topic modeling, metadata analysis, and close reading."

—Sarah Gardner, Mercer University

"Demonstrating the power of computational text and geospatial analysis, this remarkable project reveals how race and gender shaped the creation of Southern Life Histories and impacted our ability to understand the lives humanities scholars seek to investigate."

—Sharon Leon, Michigan State University