Columbia People: Alex Gil, Digital Scholarship Coordinator

By
Gary Shapiro
February 10, 2014

WHO HE IS: Digital Scholarship Coordinator, Humanities and History Division, Columbia University Libraries. Affiliate Faculty, Department of English and Comparative Literature.

YEARS AT COLUMBIA: 1.5

WHAT HE DOES: Gil helps members of the Columbia community figure out how best to use digital technology in humanities scholarship and teaching. On any given day, he might be running a workshop on digital archiving or helping a professor with digital maps. In Butler, he is most at home mixing with students, faculty and librarians in [email protected], a collaborative space on the second floor of the library. “I am a kind of traffic cop. I help make sure everyone is hanging out with those they need to hang out with,” he said. Given that he also connects like-minded researchers, Gil says, “You could also call me a matchmaker.”

BEST PART OF THE JOB: Gil enjoys working with Columbia faculty and students across many disciplines. “I get to jump from department to department,” he says. The digital humanities are a good fit for Columbia, he notes, because of the global nature of the faculty and the number of groups at the University that are digitally engaged, such as the Center for Digital Research and Scholarship and the Spatial Information Design Lab. “The University has a lot of energy brewing,” he says, adding, “We even have undergraduates running computing workshops for other students out of the goodness of their hearts.” One of Gil’s areas of research is the Open Syllabus Project, which seeks to be the largest database of syllabi in the world. He also works on the Developing Library Project, helping design a digital history of Morningside Heights. For example, Karen Green, Columbia’s librarian for ancient and medieval history and graphic novels, has researched the Lion Brewery that once sprawled over two blocks of Columbus Avenue between 107th and 109th streets.

MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT: The opening in the fall of 2013 of [email protected], a flexible space for digital collaboration. “The room can be broken up in a thou-sand ways,” Gil says, describing its moveable desks and white writing boards on wheels. “This is the ‘Transformer’ room. It’s never the same.”

ROAD TO COLUMBIA: Born in the Dominican Republic, Gil studied literature and pre-medicine at Florida International University. After graduating in 1999, he headed to the University of Virginia, where he sought to build a digital archive for Caribbean scholarship after realizing how few digital materials there were for studying that region of the world. While in graduate school, Gil became interested in the work of Aimé Césaire, a Francophone writer and politician from Martinique. In a library in northeastern France Gil uncovered a virtually unknown 107-page drama by Césaire about the Haitian revolution, which led to his being named co-editor of Césaire’s complete works. He studied in Paris for a year at the École Normale Supérieure before completing his Ph.D. in English at UVA in 2012. Shortly afterward, he headed to Columbia.

IN HIS SPARE TIME: Gil is a collector of pirate movies like Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn, as well as the Pirates of the Caribbean series featuring Johnny Depp. This is fitting since on his Twitter account Gil calls himself an “archival swashbuckler.”