Italian Trulli

Publishing Digital History: Integrating Methods, Sources, and Argument

Courtney J. Rivard (, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, United States of America

In 2012, Tom Scheinfeld asked, “Where’s the Beef? Does Digital Humanities Have to Answer Questions?” In other words, “what humanities arguments does digital humanities make?,” he asked. Responses abound but one major issue is that the way DH makes arguments isn’t always readily perceived by traditional humanities disciplines. In an effort to address this issue, the Center for History and New Media (CHNM), a national leader in digital history in the United States, organized a workshop in 2017 with leading historians in digital history. The result was a white paper, Digital History and Argument. The paper noted that “the responsibility for integrating digital history with argumentation thus rests both with the digital historians who make implicit or explicit historical arguments and with the rest of the profession who must learn to recognize them” (2). In this poster, we directly respond to the important call made in this white paper by outlining our framework for a new digital book, Voice of a Nation: Mapping Documentary Expression in New America. The poster will make explicit the scholarly intervention of the project and then explain how the book’s arguments are being conveyed through digital forms, specifically organized around layers and thick mapping building off of the spatial turn in digital history. Digital humanities and digital history, we argue in our poster, allows us to make a unique scholarly argument only through a digital form.

Intervention: This digital manuscript recovers the significant history of the Southern Life History Project (SLHP) by applying computational methods to analyze the collection. The SLHP, part of the United States New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project, was dedicated to capturing the stories of everyday Americans, especially those who had been previously marginalized from historical accounts, including African Americans, women, and the working class though a newly created genre they called ‘life history.” The SLHP together with other regional units of the FWP employed over 6,000 writers to produce nearly 10,000 interviews nationwide, constituting what one archivist called “the largest body of first person narratives ever collected in this country” (Banks, viii). The life histories are written narratives in which writers gave their interpretation of interviewees’ lives, leading Jerrold Hirsch (2004) to call them ‘conversational narratives’ as they often evidence more about the writer than interviewee. Because this project was part of the Federal Writers’ Project during the New Deal, the life histories offer valuable insights into how notions of race, gender, class and national belonging were conceptualized during this pivotal time in American history. By pairing close and distant readings of this archive, our digital-based argument presents an entangled story about how a new form of documentary evidence called a life history helped to reshape notions of what it meant to be American during a time of political, social and economic unrest.

Organization: Our digital book builds off of the spatial turn in digital history led by scholars such as Stanford’s Richard White and over two decades of critical cartography. Scholars are turning to visualizations such as maps to convey scholarly knowledge and arguments. In the same way that audiences have learned how to read text to interpret an argument, audiences also have the tools to interpret visualizations. This project uses visualizations such as interactive mapping as a form of argumentation and then puts them in conversation with textual argumentation. Specifically, we employ a “thick mapping” approach as outlined by Todd Presner, David Shepard and Yoh Kawano, who define this approach as “the process of collecting, aggregating and visualizing ever more layers of geographic or place-specific data” (Pressner, Shepard and Kawano, 17). The resulting interactive thick maps serve as visual arguments that are complemented by expository text organized in what we call layers. Like a chapter, each layer provides an argument about the cultural and political work of the Federal Writers Project. Rather than restricted to a linear narrative, audiences can pick a layer to explore moving through as they see fit. The layered approach offers audiences flexibility to navigate the project through non-linear argumentation. Moreover, it differs from “print narratives in incorporating the sources themselves as a central element, which can allow for more analysis and engagement” (CHNM 8) as well as permit “different relationships between argument and evidence” CHNM (10).

The project then expands the notion of thick mapping in the context of the spatial turn to rethink the organization of scholarship. The layers become a thick map that demonstrate how the Federal Writers Project and the resulting life histories were imbricated in the development of social documentary as a genre and the renegotiation of Southern identity during the New Deal era.

Appendix A

  1. Banks, Ann. First-Person America. Open Road Media, 2015.
  2. Presner, Todd, et al. Hypercities Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities. 2014.
  3. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (CHNM). “Digital History and Argument.” White Paper. November 13, 2017.
  4. Scheinfeldt, Tom. “Where’s the Beef? Does Digital Humanities Have to Answer Questions?” Debates in the Digital Humanities, 2012. URL:
  5. White, Richard. “What is Spatial History?” Spatial History Lab: Working Paper. February 1, 2010.