Stanford University Press


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

The following documents the original digital publication Layered Lives: Rhetoric and Representation in the Southern Life History Project by Taylor Arnold, Courtney Rivard, and Lauren Tilton (Stanford University Press, 2022). DOI: 10.21627/2022ll ISBN: 9781503615281.

Download video transcript.


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.

The project was originally published August 2022 at It is the ninth publication of Stanford University Press’s initiative for the publication of interactive scholarly works funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Technical Requirements

At the time of publication, reading this project requires an internet connection and is best experienced via any active JavaScript-enabled browser. Current browsers at time of publication include Safari 15, Chrome 103, Firefox 102, Microsoft Edge 103, Opera 89, and other contemporary browsers. The project includes an interactive map and is best experienced on a nonmobile or desktop-sized screen.

Technical Specifications

The project was built using Node and React and presented via static HTML/CSS/JavaScript. The published version of the project is hosted in a LAMP server environment running Cloudlinux 7.8. The project runs primarily on JavaScript and does not use database software.

User Experience

screenshot of project cover page
Figure 1. Landing page for the project. Clicking Enter opens a new window with the main project site.

The Layered Lives platform has been developed to expand forms of academic scholarship and communicate knowledge. Along with archival evidence, the creation, analysis, and communication of data sit at the core of this project. The digital platform offers an opportunity to make visible what kinds of data we created, how we analyzed the data, and why through visualizations and text. These values are shown through the structure of the project as seen in the user experience.

screenshot of project cover page
Figure 2. The project site as it appears when first entering. Buttons on the left allow for opening each layer of text.

After clicking Enter from the cover (see fig. 1), users landing on the project page (see fig. 2) are shown a table of contents on the left-hand side of the screen and a map on the right-hand side of the screen. Clicking on elements of the table of contents changes the left-hand panel to show the written argument of the project (see fig. 3). Components are structured into what we call layers. As a chapter, each layer offers insights into the social, political, and cultural work of the Southern Life History Project. Hyperlinks within the text point to bibliographic references and cross-citations within the project.

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Figure 3. Example of one layer’s text on the left-hand side of the screen.

When a user hovers over a hyperlink attached to archival resources, a pop-up window appears on the right-hand side showing an image of the archival document (see fig. 4). These were scanned directly by the project team from the SLHP archives housed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hyperlinks within the text also open new visualizations on the right-hand panel, which are described below.

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Figure 4. Clicking the maroon link brings up a scanned image of the archival document.

The large interactive map on the right-hand panel defaults to show the southeastern United States. The default map shows the locations where interviews in the SLHP took place using round dots overlaid on a minimal map of the United States. The area of the point is proportional to the number of interviews in one location. Points on the map are given a translucent color so that points for nearby towns can be seen even when one town has many interviews.

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Figure 5. Example showing a different map (this one colored by occupation), zoomed into a region around Charlotte, North Carolina.

Different maps are available to explore the spatial extent of the collection in different ways. These can be selected through the drop-down menu. Options include filtering by the gender and race of the writers and interviewees as well as coloring the points by the occupation of the interviewees (see fig. 5). Clicking on a point shows a list of all interviews conducted in each location (see fig. 6). Clicking on the interview brings up a new tab that shows the text of the interview as a styled XML file (see fig. 7).

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Figure 6. The result of clicking on the map showing all life histories available in a location.

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Figure 7. Clicking on an individual life history from the map or themes visualizers displays the document as a stylized XML file.

The Layered Lives platform is designed to pair text and interactive visualizations to convey the project’s arguments and scope. A textual analysis of the collection can be seen by clicking on the Themes button in the corner of the map or following the textual model hyperlinks sprinkled throughout the layers (see figs. 8 and 9).

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Figure 8. Example of a document clustering algorithm, showing metadata about each detected cluster.

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Figure 9. Metadata about a specific document cluster, including individual life histories.

The two text analysis models used in our analysis—topic modeling and document clustering—are both built to analyze the occurrence of terms within the text of the interviews. These can be explored on the platform by selecting a model, looking at the top terms for each topic or cluster, and then investigating the individual document within each group. Clicking on an individual interview opens the XML file of the entire text in a similar way to clicking on the interview from the map. These provide different modes for users to discover for themselves the depth and variety of the life histories included in the archive.

Technical Structure

The SDR archive collection includes a single public_html.tar file, which, when uncompressed, reveals the full structure and contents of the hosted publication. Most of the textual content is contained in the file main.43b93da7.chunk.js within /static/js, while the archival files, stored as XML, can be found in /data/xml. This data is read and presented by means of custom JavaScript and styles housed in the “css” and “static” directories. Media files are located in the “img” directory in the project’s public_html folder. Base URL in this package is set to accommodate the original publication URL at

A web archive of this project can be accessed via the Archive link on the project’s cover page at or downloaded from the Stanford Digital Repository collection at


Authors: Lauren Tilton, Courtney Rivard, and Taylor Arnold

Student Workers:
Emeline Blevins Alexander, Bal Artis, Carla Aviles, Karissa Barrera, Elizabeth Bonesteel, Kayley Bryson, Ivana Devine, Grant Glass, Grace Hilebrand, Sarah Moody, Lacie Morrison, Scott Robinson, and Sara Siemens

Southern Historical Collection at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:
Matthew Turi, Jason Tomberlin, and Matt Jenson

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