My scholarship includes both peer-reviewed articles and digital projects that bridge the fields of digital humanities, information science, and book history. My work has focused on archival materials from Mexico and Central America from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries. My articles consider how technology has been used to refashion these materials to improve access to the historical record; my digital work explores the future of access for these historical texts.
All of my published work (including my dissertation) is open access and available through this website. Use the "+" to view abstracts.
Hannah Alpert-Abrams and Clayton McCarl, eds.
A special collection of Digital Humanities Quarterly 14.4. 2020.
This special issue of Digital Humanities Quarterly examines intersections between colonial Latin American studies (CLAS) and digital humanities (DH) theory and practice. The essays collected here touch on matters that pertain to numerous fields, including anthropology, archaeology, art history, history, linguistics, and literature. By doing so in a digital context, they blur the lines between many of these fields, and point to several major themes that predominate across digital humanities scholarship today.
Hannah Alpert-Abrams, David Bliss, and Itza Carbajal
Journal of Critical Library and Information Science. 2019.
LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at the University of Texas at Austin applies post-custodial archival methods in pursuit of a new vision of digital archival practice and the transnational construction of historical memory. This work seeks to develop a practice for digital archiving that enables the redistribution of resources while centering communities as contributors and owners of their own documentary heritage. Although LLILAS Benson has successfully built partnerships and continues to manage widely recognized collections using a post-custodial model, the anti-colonial framework through which this work has been understood does not fully account for the power imbalances at play. Using Cifor and Lee’s survey of neoliberalism in the archives as a launching point, this article considers how neoliberalism has shaped post-custodial practices at LLILAS Benson, focusing on ideas and practices of labor, digitization, and the common good. Through this analysis, the authors describe not a static set of methodologies, but rather an ongoing process of learning, unlearning, and restructuring in pursuit of a collective good.
Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience. October 2018.
Digital Humanities Quarterly. November 2016.
Early modern printed books pose particular challenges for automatic transcription: uneven inking, irregular orthographies, radically multilingual texts. As a result, modern efforts to transcribe these documents tend to produce the textual gibberish commonly known as "dirty OCR" (Optical Character Recognition). This noisy output is most frequently seen as a barrier to access for scholars interested in the computational analysis or digital display of transcribed documents. This article, however, proposes that a closer analysis of dirty OCR can reveal both historical and cultural factors at play in the practice of automatic transcription. To make this argument, it focuses on tools developed for the automatic transcription of the Primeros Libros collection of sixteenth century Mexican printed books. By bringing together the history of the collection with that of the OCR tool, it illustrates how the colonial history of these documents is embedded in, and transformed by, the statistical models used for automatic transcription. It argues that automatic transcription, itself a mechanical and practical tool, also has an interpretive effect on transcribed texts that can have practical consequences for scholarly work.
Scholarly Editing. May 2016.
Digital collections of historical books create new opportunities for scholarly editing. This article uses the Primeros Libros collection of books printed prior to 1601 to consider how design decisions for digital materials often depend on anachronistic assumptions about the coherence and originary status of the digital object. It then uses the "Archaeology of a Book" project to describe an approach to digital critical editions that engages with the shifting status of books in the early modern period, changes in their status over time, and the material traces that history leaves on the books themselves.
Pterodáctilo 11, Fall 2012
Alejo Carpentier's canonical novel Los pasos perdidos (Cuba, 1953) had a rocky reception when it was first translated into English and published in the United States in 1956. Originally hailed by publishers at Knopf with great enthusiasm, the novel ultimately was seen as a major flop: "The severest disappointment I have known as a publisher's editor" in the words of Herbert Weinstock. This article draws on archival records from the Knopf collection at the Harry Ransom Center to understand how the process of editing, translation, and publicity impacted reception of The Lost Steps in the United States.
Brianna Gormly, Maura Seale, Hannah Alpert-Abrams, Andi Gustavson, Angie Kemp, Thea Lindquist, and Alexis Logsdon. 28 Oct 2019.
Maria Ryskina, Hannah Alpert-Abrams, Dan Garrette, and Taylor Berg-Kirkpatrick
Proceedings of ACL 2017
Scholarly Book Reviews
SHARP News, Spring 2016
Book Review: Kathryn Burns, Into the Archive.
E3W Review of Books, Spring 2014.
Comparative Literature, Summer 2017
This dissertation is about the unreading of the Americas: about the ways that the documents that describe American history have been hidden, obscured, and rendered illegible even as they have circulated throughout the Americas and across the Atlantic. Its objects of study are the multilingual (and multimodal) documents that were produced during the first century of Spanish presence in Mesoamerica, a period that can be loosely defined as 1521-1621. It begins from the premise that, thanks to their linguistic and material conditions, the documents produced during this period were largely unreadable when they began to re-circulate among historians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It asks: in what ways were these unreadable books read, and by what mechanisms were they rendered readable?
To answer these questions, the dissertation focuses on the most innocuous of mechanisms: the processes by which texts have been replicated for circulation. Textual replication, from transcription to typesetting, photolithography, microfilming, and digitization, is a largely invisible mechanism that has long facilitated the relationship between historians and the primary sources of their scholarship. Today, in the face of large-scale digitization projects, we express concern about the limitations of these mediations: the errors introduced by transcription, or the detail lost through digitization. At the same time, we understand that in many cases it is only thanks to these mediations that these texts are accessible at all. Given these conditions, I find that differing values, and different technologies, shape the ways in which historical documents are made available to be read, and the kinds of information that is lost in transmission.
Transparency, Vulnerability, and Collective Action
Northeast MLA, March 2021.
Culture Mapping 2020: Futures.
Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing, July 2019.
The Perfect Copy: Replicas in motion in the U.S. and Mexico
Latin American Studies Association, May 2019.
Scaling Access to State Records of Repression
With Tamy Guberek. Latin American Studies Association, May 2019.
Multilingual Texts in a Digital Age
Wellesley College, April 2019.
Digital Futures: Critical Digital Archives Panel
University of Connecticut, March 2019.
Critical Digital Archives
Bates College, March 2019.
Critical Digital Archives
Arizona State University, Sept 2018.
Ensañanza Colectiva con Archivos Digitales
Eternal Sunrise: Digital Lifecycles and Long Term Preservation for Social Justice Archives
Building Early Colonial Corpora for Digital Scholarship
Critical Digital Archives (Lightning Talk)
Transcribing Multilingual Documents in the Digital Age
An Unexpected Influence: Photostat Machines in Colonial Libraries, 1895-1915
Reading the First Books Symposium: Project Introduction
Fellows Talk: An Unexpected Influence
"My dear Mr. Brown," wrote George Parker Winship on September 11, 1896, "I fear that I am not whole sober this evening despite the most complete abstinence." Winship was writing from Mexico, where he had just completed the acquisition of the private library of the Mexican collector Nicolas León. This acquisition, which was made in the name of John Nicholas Brown and cost some $2600 gold, transformed the John Carter Brown Library from a center for Americana to one of the greatest collections of early Mexican imprints in the world. This talk begins with this moment of acquisition, asking how it impacted both the nature of the JCBL collections and the practice of colonial research. In following the collection through subsequent decades, this moment pairs with a second, similarly impactful acquisition: the 1913 purchase of a Photostat machine. Unlike the León acquisition, the importance of the Photostat machine came as a surprise to Winship, who wrote with some bemusement that it was having "an unexpected influence upon the development of the library." Much like digital collections today, the facsimiles produced with the Photostat machine would change how scholars read and accessed early Mexican texts.
Optical Character Recognition
Esta ãphibologia no ay ē latin: Machine reading linguistic hybridity in the Primeros Libros
The Electronic Edition of Colonial and Nineteenth-Century Latin American Texts: New Tools, New Models for Collaboration (workshop panelist)
This workshop brings together a diverse group of experts for a conversation designed to reveal new possibilities for collaboration on Digital Humanities projects within the fields of colonial and nineteenth-century Latin America. Hannah Alpert-Abrams of the University of Texas at Austin will speak on Ocular, an optical character recognition (OCR) tool that can read multilingual texts, including those involving indigenous languages. Nick Laiacona, founder of Performant Software Solutions, will discuss Juxta, a TEI-XML-based editing tool that provides an easy-to-use graphical interface and features for project management, including version control. Liz Grumbach, Project Manager for the Advanced Research Consortium and 18thConnect, will share her experiences creating communities to support the peer-review of electronic scholarship. Ralph Bauer of the University of Maryland will discuss the changes that are taking place at the Early Americas Digital Archive. This discussion is designed as a starting point for an ongoing conversation that could lead to new Digital Humanities initiatives involving members of LASA. [Session Organizer: Clayton McCarl]
Printed Books as Digital Textual Objects: the case of the Advertencias para los confessores de los Naturales
The mass digitization of printed books has radically increased the accessibility and discoverability of historical documents from around the world. Due to the limitations of labor, costs, and technology, many of these digitization projects - like my own work with the Primeros Libros collection of sixteenth century Mexican printed books - have been forced through a scan-ocr-post pipeline that emphasizes and even exaggerates the centrality of the printed word in the historical record. This may come at the expense of the material evidence of what many call the ecology of the text: details of production, circulation, and use which disappear into the pixelated edges of the digital facsimile, or fall out of the digital edition altogether. In this paper I discuss a project to situate digitized copies of the Advertencias para los confessores de los Naturales (Tlatelolco, 1600) within their textual ecology by reading page scans alongside production records and provenance marks and by contextualizing them within digitally reconstructed libraries that cut across online collections. Through this project, I envision an approach to the editing of digital texts that treats the printed book as a dynamic textual object inscribed with traces of its movement through time and space.
Machine Reading in the Mexican Colonial Archive: OCR and the Primeros Libros
This paper explores practical and theoretical challenges of automatically transcribing early colonial print documents. It stems from our work building an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) system for the Primeros Libros collection of digital facsimiles of books printed in the Americas before 1601. Using the "Advertencias para los confessores de los naturales" (1601) as a case study, I identify an analogous relationship between the codification of multilingual evangelical discourse in early colonial writing and the digitization of early modern text. I argue that this relationship reveals more than just the uneasy heritage of digital archival practices. It also suggests that the procedures of digitization obscure sites of messy cultural engagement - the relationships of the contact zone enacted on a digital, textual, postcolonial plane. How does the recognition of this relationship impact our editorial practices as we produce transcriptions of these early colonial documents?
Automatic Transcription in Colonial Contexts
Hannah Alpert-Abrams and Dan Garrette
Hannah Alpert-Abrams and Dan Garrette
ACLA 2015 [slides .pdf]
The PDF images of early American printed books in the Primeros Libros digital collection pose several challenges for Optical Character Recognition (OCR) systems. The Ocular system, designed by Taylor Berg-Kirkpatrick, Greg Durrett, and Dan Klein, jointly models the physical operation of hand-press printing and the language of the written document, allowing it to ‘learn’ to read early printed books. Ocular cannot, however, handle the diacritics and code switching prevalent in the American context. Working with PDF images of trilingual texts in Spanish, Latin, and Nahuatl, we set out to modify Ocular for use on the Primeros Libros collection. Our purpose was, to paraphrase Mary Louise Pratt, to make these texts read (by an online audience) and readable (by a computer).
In this paper, we turn a critical eye to our OCR system. The books in the Primeros Libros collection represent a new print technology that has often been seen as an apparatus of Spanish colonial rule; at the same time, they encode shifting relationships between church and state, between Europe and America, and between Spaniards and indigenous Mexican peoples. In this paper, we will describe how the OCR model transforms these original texts to create a new surface for textual engagement, and how this surface reflects back onto processes of transcription and translation underlying the original production of the Primeros Libros. Focusing specifically on textual code switching and the challenges that it has posed for OCR, We will consider how these technologies engage with processes of isolating and codifying indigenous languages and cultural practices.
Digital repatriation, or the return of culturally significant texts to their site of origin in digital form, has become an increasingly common means of cultural exchange. Through these projects, local institutions are able to claim ownership over digital facsimiles of heritage objects, while websites provide near-global access to historical texts. As a result, these projects disrupt the geographically bounded archival networks through which these objects have long been preserved and contextualized. This project addresses this disruption by tracing the institutional history of four copies of the Advertencias para los Confessores de los Naturales (Mexico, 1600) and their digital facsimiles in the Primeros Libros project. An analysis of the archival context of these copies reveals the different roles that they have played in forming institutionally sanctioned historical narratives from Mexico City to Houston Texas, roles that are defined in part by the organizational systems of the libraries and in part by their geographical location. In contrast, I consider the digital manifestation of these copies in the Primeros Libros project, a collaborative enterprise seeking to digitize all books printed in America before 1601. As my analysis will show, this new context reasserts the centrality of printing technology in the Mexican colonial archive, emphasizing the material fragmentation of colonial history and also encouraging the reconstruction of a historical ideal from that fragmented past.
Samuel Cramer, the anti-hero of Charles Baudelaire's early novella La Fanfarlo, is the product of a German father and a Chilean mother: combined with a French education, this national hybridity produces in him a hopeless romanticism. Thus Cramer embodies what Mary Louise Pratt calls the romanticism of the contact zone, the possibility that European romanticism is an epidemic from across the Atlantic.
In Pratt's model, romanticism returns to the Americas through the early nineteenth-century travels and travel writings of Alexander von Humboldt. Samuel Cramer resurfaces here too, in the unlikely figure of Juan Dahlmann. Dahlmann, the protagonist of Jorge Luis Borges' short story El sur, is the Argentine son of a German father and an American mother. Though on the surface this story is quite different, its narrative runs parallel to that of La Fanfarlo. Like Cramer, in the end Dahlmann also suffers from a fatal romanticism.
In this paper I will read El sur alongside La Fanfarlo to construct a transatlantic lineage of hybrid identities and hybrid literatures. I will examine the oscillation between the modern and the romantic as an iterative movement, from salon to city streets, from library to pampas, and from Baudelaire's Paris to Borges' Buenos Aires.
Collected writings from the "Memory and Archives" panel at the 2012 Graduate Association in Comparative Literature conference at the University of Texas at Austin.
How do archives construct communities (and how do communities construct archives)?
In this paper, I talk about subversive, disappearing, and silent archives in Roberto Bolaño's Los detectives salvajes. In 1989, Roberto González Echevarría's Myth and Archive offered a definitive historiography of Latin American literature culminating in the "archival novel" of the "boom" era. This genre is characterized by the combination of a mythic or cyclical narrative structure with a more teleological narrative based in the archive — in a collection of canonical national and historical texts. Bolaño's novel can be read as a continuation of and a return to the "archival novel" because of the way in which it collects and catalogues texts. This suggests that it can also be read as a continuation of the project of building a national or continental Latin American identity, and Bolaño has often been read this way, striking an ongoing debate over his Chilean, Mexican, and Latin American authenticity.
Although the archives in Los detectives salvajes do follow archival convention, however, they are both parodic and subversive. One archive catalogues the great Latin American poets by way of their (imagined) sexuality; another contains books that are stolen but not read; another contains the poems rejected by a literary magazine. These archives are constructed in bars, in bedrooms, and on rooftops; the archivists themselves are dropouts and poets and prostitutes, often drunk or high. I will argue that this archival parody makes obsolete the concept of the fixed national archive and, thus, the project of constructing identities along geopolitical lines. Bolaño's archives, instead, offer an escape from a violent and chaotic world, indulging the fantasy of narrative stability and of play.
Co-taught with Neil Safier and Stijn van Rossem. John Carter Brown Library, Brown University. Spring 2019. Undergraduate seminar.
Co-taught with Kelly McDonough. Departments of Latin American Studies and Spanish and Portuguese. Fall 2018. Graduate seminar.
Transcribing Historical and Multilingual Documents [slides .pdf]
Digital Jumpstart Workshop Series, University of Kansas
Copies of Copies of Historial Books [slides .pdf]
Reading Books in the Digital Age (University of Texas at Austin)
Introduction to Transcription for Historical Documents [slides .pdf]
John Carter Brown Library, April 2017
University of Texas, Fall 2015
University of Texas, Fall 2014
University of Texas, Fall 2014
University of Texas, Spring 2014
University of Texas, Fall 2013
Online portal to the digital repository for the Guatemala Police Archive.
A two-year, multi-university effort to develop tools for the automatic transcription of early modern printed books. Funded by the NEH Office of Digital Humanities (2015-2017).
An experimental approach to reading rare books in archival contexts. Published with Scalar (2015). (Not reviewed)
Tex Libris, January 25, 2018. [Español]
Reading the First Books: Annual Report, November 1, 2016
Reading the First Books joins the Early Modern OCR Project [español], August 24, 2016
The Digital Editing of Colonial Texts: report from LASA, May 31, 2016
Report from the NEH Office of Digital Humanities, September 28, 2015
With Dan Garrette. Language Log, September 12, 2013.
This resource documents activities of the archives and social justice reading group at the University of Texas, Austin, and includes an extensive bibliography.
A crowdsourced list of digital humanities projects.
A crowdsourced list of readings in book history.