I am the Digital Scholarship Librarian at Columbia University, where I collaborate with faculty, students and library colleagues in humanities research, pedagogy and knowledge production that involves the use of advanced computation, digital media design, and network technologies. I am the lead coordinator for the Butler Library Studio at Columbia University Libraries, a tech-light library space focused on digital scholarship and pedagogy, and now a broadcast, Studio Remote. I’m also co-founder and moderator of Columbia’s Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities, a trans-disciplinary research cluster focused on experimental humanities; one of the creators and main editors of archipelagos journal: a journal of Caribbean digital praxis, and co-wrangler of its sister conference series, The Caribbean Digital.
My research interests include Caribbean culture and history, with a focus on twentieth century poetry; digital humanities and technology design for different infrastructural and socio-economic environments; and, the relations of power and material extent of the cultural and scholarly record.
Download a copy of the Curriculum Vitae
The Six Profiles
Below is a selection of my work organized by profiles—some of the different paths I walk on. Although these worlds often intersect with each other, they remain distinct enough to my ears, and I am often, or have been, an other Alex in each. Much of the work listed below is also teamwork, where I play an important role, but by no means the only important role. The dates mark my involvement in a project, not necessarily the lifespan of the project or its publication date.
- The Caribbean Digital
- Columbia University
- Aimé Césaire
- Mobilized Humanities
- Minimal Computing
- The Broken Record
The Caribbean Digital
We did not have access to all the Caribbean literature and culture we needed to carry our studies at the University of Virginia at the beginning of the century. Maybe I could rally enough people to help build a digital library of Caribbean literature… This is one of my origin stories in digital humanities: The wisdom and naivety of one day being independent and useful enough to build a digital library drove me to learn computational methods. I never did build it—thankfully others built a fine Digital Library of the Caribbean—but I did meet enough kin spirits to help build and maintain something just as a wonderful: a support structure for a community of dialogue and practice around Caribbean digital scholarship. With some of my closest collaborators, I helped create a town hall for that community, The Caribbean Digital; a vehicle for it, archipelagos; and several wonderous examples in the genre, including “In the Same Boats” below. Harder to list on a profile page is the work without a project that is the community itself, shared with so many colleagues and friends. I am proud of all that we have done. Onward.
- A comprehensive directory of contemporary Caribbean Digital Scholarship collectively logged in 2020.
- A born-digital, peer-reviewed publication devoted to creative exploration, debate, and critical thinking about and through digital practices in contemporary scholarly and artistic work in and on the Caribbean.
- A work of collaborative scholarship that aims to trace the life trajectories and intersections of selected 20th Century historical figures in the Black Atlantic.
- Held the first week of December every year, the Caribbean Digital conference brings together practitioners and scholars in Caribbean Digital Studies from all over the world.
I was hired at Columbia University Libraries to “coordinate,” to un-silo much of what was already being recognized as digital humanities activities across campus. The hire was a shard of light, bringing me into a subject specialist team, Humanities & History, rather than a digital scholarship center. If my main job was to help build community and bridges with faculty and students, I was meant to do it side-by-side with my librarian colleagues. Although I did move on to other parts of the organization, that initial setup provided the foundation for what grew later. The Studio, the xpmethods group, and many of the projects you see listed below come from the understanding that subject matter and intellectual community, not functional expertise, should be our guiding light. After almost a decade, we have been able to place our work at Columbia University on the national and international map. We have developed our own unique reconciliation between the three branches of digital humanities as I see them: architectures of knowledge, algorithmic approaches to corpora and socio-technical mobibilization. At the library, the experimental work we have fostered has quietly and beneficially filtered to other parts of the organization… and yes, we are much less siloed today.
- Oral histories of frontline nurses in the fight against Ebola in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the fight against COVID-19 in the United States.
- An effort to document and interpret the events associated with the novel coronavirus epidemic in the United States as it pertains especially to racialized minorities and issues of structural inequality and racism.
- One of our answers to the lockdown, our Twitch channel features original programming in digital scholarship, workshop series, guest talks, and more.
- Examples from the RBML of the various types of books used in the Middle Ages for the celebration of the Latin liturgy.
- An art history course and an online exhibit built around the first fashion magazine: the Journal des dames et des modes.
- A bird's eye view of digital humanities projects and the people behind them at Columbia University.
- A research cluster dedicated to the rapid prototyping of speculative ideas.
- Formerly Studio@Butler, a tech-light space for ethical, sustainable, collaborative, and FAIR digital, data-driven research and pedagogy at Butler Library.
- For one year the Humanities and History division at the library worked together to learn and build together a Digital History of Morningside Heights.
I went to graduate school to study James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, and ended up writing a dissertation on Aimé Césaire. I really can’t pinpoint the moment or specific reasons that drew me to Césaire. When I was able to identify and bring attention to Césaire’s lost play about the Haitian Revolution, though, I knew my fate was sealed. In a sense, Césaire picked me, not the other way around. Delving into the broken record, asking and answering new research questions about the great poet and statesman provides the connecting tissue for what I do—where form and content crystallize for me—the fight for dignity in entanglement, but against assimilation—the restitution of poetic knowledge over a mechanistic universe. Still glad he found me.
- A collective annotation of a joint translation of the 1939 typescript of Césaire's 'Cahier d'un retour au pays natal.'
- Diplomatic edition and facsimile of the typescript of Césaire's lost play.
- A conference, online forum and marathon of research celebrating the poet's centenary year.
- Research and editorial work, in front and behind the cameras, for this critical and genetic edition.
- Original research focused on Césaire's early period.
In addition to the familiar avenues of teaching, advocacy, protest or democratic participation, I believe we can put to use our skills and knowledge to address the crises of our time. Sometimes in order to do so, all we need to do is reimagine how we work with each other. Perhaps we have locked ourselves into some unnecessary corners because of the institutional structures we inherit: to collaborate outside our home institutions, for example, we expect time-consuming grants; to collaborate internally, we often forgo a team better suited to the task at hand. In the mean time, crises are made more numerous and intense by that inter-connectedness that brings most things home, and that runs on the same fuel as the capitalopatricolonial-anthropoclusterfuckocene. Perhaps it is time we learn new ways to mobilize the humanities and scholarship—in their glorious differences from natural science—to face our collective urgencies. We may not be able to have the same “impact” as industry, and its academic arm, without matching the funding levels they command, but that does not mean we’re devoid of consequential power. Below are some team efforts that I have been a part of, meant to develop the muscle memory to assemble in new keys, new registers, bringing often little or no coin, but always each other and what we already know.
- A coalition of makers that responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by manufacturing, assembling, and distributing 3D printed PPE to healthcare workers on the front lines.
- A public humanities effort to honor the extraordinary contributions of scholar Dr. Lorgia García Peña through an online forum and a Twitter book festival in the wake of Harvard's unjust denial of tenure.
- A rapidly deployed critical data & visualization intervention in the USA’s 2018 “Zero Tolerance Policy” and the humanitarian crisis that followed.
- Tutorials, workflows and sample materials to help teams and organizations be as prepared as they can to address urgent challenges, both individually and as collectives.
- A chain of mapathons across the United States and Mexico that in essence rebuilt the Open Streets Map of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria for use by the Red Cross.
- A coding workshop and an algorithmic storytelling project set in and about Rikers Island correctional facility, New York city’s main jail complex.
The digital divide works less like a two-sided coin, and more like different ecologies. This is what we can observe around the world, from New York City’s Rikers Island jail, where the guards have exclusive access to machines, but our young remember them; to the sneakernets in Havana for LGBTQ or critical race scholarship, or the strange Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius of their intranet; to the afternoons at the University of Khartoum, when the internet is faster and the lights are on, but the government is still… you know. How then do we build and maintain our scholarly edifices for a world with these differences? This is the main driver behind “minimal computing”: to lower the overall costs of scholarly digital production, sharing and stewardship across as many registers as we can perceive and describe… to meet our most basic needs as scholars and teachers: to understand and tweak the past for those who come after us.
- A set of minimal computing tools for producing digital exhibitions, focused on longevity, low costs, and flexibility.
- A Jekyll theme designed for textual editors based on minimal computing principles, and focused on legibility, durability, ease and flexibility.
- One of the earliest prototypes for Wax, working in collaboration with colleagues in Sudan.
- A community resource gathering early thought pieces on the minimal computing movement.
- An ephemeral archive of renditions of the Black anthem, 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,' and an example of Wax used with video.
The Broken Record
What is the actual shape of the world’s archive? I have a recurring daydream of all existing documents in the world—analog and digital—from the codices dormant in warehouses, to the algorithms and data waiting for a reader to summon them into being. Even if the amount is hard to count at any given moment, like swallows flying by, it may still be finite. How are we to understand it’s shape? With what macroscopes? The computational? The postcolonial? Maybe breaking it down into corners might make the task easier. We know, for example, that a few for-profit monopolies have come to control that corner we call the scholarly record of the North Atlantic world; that pirate libraries do their caring by freeing that knowledge production, in many cases for the benefit of a grateful Global South, whose own mom-and-pop, or government-subsidized production, still remains mostly invisible to that North Atlantic. And what of the myriad other ways in which our record is found already broken because of our post-1492 world: the produced silences of the colonial past, or the accidental ones? The stolen volumes? Or the piles of useless ones? I see the desire to make that record whole by owning it, and with these desires much grief. I daydream instead of mending the wounds of the past and present—and fighting for the future—of our de facto Library of Babylon—a library ultimately made for immigrants and exiles, in imperfectly translatable tongues, steadily refracted by annotation, rife with gaps for us to hide in, and impossible to control by sameness.
- A virtual seminar to discuss newly published books on slavery and the Afro-Atlantic world with their authors.
- Editorial work to open up Digital Humanities Quarterly to languages other than English.
- A journey around the world in 80 digital humanities projects.
- A set of approaches for allowing multiple languages to thrive at conferences.
- A series of visualizations of the collection and circulation of Columbia University library holdings.
- An attempt to collect massive amounts of syllabi from the internet, and to extract and analyze the readings used in anglophone classrooms around the world.
- A tool for collaborative interpretation of texts.