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Sorting through a digital history

September 3, 2009

With more and more libraries digitising their archives, academics have a growing number of texts they can access without having to get on a plane and journey to distant continents. Perhaps in the near future, researchers will be able to simply log on from their office to view a database of a nearly infinite number of ancient texts, prayers or whatever writings have been handed down by our ancestors.

Dead Sea scrolls

Of course, problems arise with digitising thousands of years of handwritten documents. Making a digital copy is the easy part. Helping the computer understand what is written, well, that is a tough one.

Gideon Ben-Zvi, who has founded a couple companies in the field of Optical Character Recognition (OCR), told me that: “The eyes outperform even the best OCR software by magnitude, although the speed achieved by OCR is far faster than humans.”

That means a researcher can sit for hours in front of a page of text and will always emerge with a better understanding of the words written. However, once a computer program can discern words, phrases and even handwriting in the most highly degraded texts, you can then search through millions of pages almost instantaneously.

Historians will be able to find pages from books that may have been scattered across the globe simply by searching for key words, sentence structures or handwriting styles.


A team of researches at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University has developed an algorithm that could be an important step in achieving such a database. Uri Ehrlich, a liturgist at the university, explained how it took a few years of research to locate a single page stored in a different library that matched a ancient page of text he had been studying. If the research team indeed creates a user-friendly computer program, and libraries agree to centralise these archives in one, giant digital database, imagine the secrets of our past we have yet to discover!

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