Documenting at Scale: Reframing America in the 1930s and 1940s

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 1:50 PM
Plaza Ballroom D (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Lauren Tilton, Yale University
Digital humanities offers exciting methods to explore historical data and garner new knowledge. In this paper, I will explore how placing two federal documentary projects, one focused on life histories (Federal Writers Project / FWP) and the other on photographic evidence (Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Historic Division / FSA-OWI) , offers an opportunity to distant read the documentary record produced by the federal government during the great depression and World War II. In order to do so, I will use Photogrammar, a web based digital and public humanities platform for organizing, searching, and visualizing the documentary record of the era. We are currently adding over 4,000 life histories from the FWP to the FSA-OWI’s 170,000 photographs from 1935 to 1945 created by the FSA-OWI. By developing uniform metadata, we can now  plot the interviews on a new geographical layer allowing search by space and time or search the FWP along with the geographical layer of FSA-OWI photographs. We can now explore the FWP and FSA-OWI spatially, temporally and through faceted searching allowing scholars to explore the broader documentary record of the era relationally.  For this particular paper, I will track the movement of interviewers across regions, and then also compare those movements with the photographers from the FSA-OWI. Are there some regions over- or under-represented in the life histories and FSA-OWI?  How often did interviewers and photographers cross paths? When they did document the same region and what were the results? In the process, I will show how digital humanities applied to historical data at scale open new questions and scholarship about the documentary record produced by the federal government during the 1930s and 1940s.