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Ernst Mayr Library Partners on Grant Testing Crowd-Sourcing Historical Document Transcription

October 23, 2013

October 23, 2013—Harvard’s Ernst Mayr Library is partnering on Purposeful Gaming, a project that makes a game out of transcribing historical documents, led by the Missouri Botanical Garden and supported by an IMLS National Leadership Grant.

For its part, Ernst Mayr staff members are working on 2,000 pages of diaries and field notes by William Brewster, a late-19th- and early-20th-century ornithologist/naturalist. Historic literature, especially handwritten notes, typically cannot be transcribed using optical character recognition (OCR) software thanks to varying fonts, typesetting and layouts. The goal of the Purposeful Gaming project is to both test the efficacy of gaming as a transcription tool and improve access to digital texts.

“We will hire two interns to transcribe the pages, and then those transcriptions will be entered onto an interface that allows outside participants to make suggested corrections to the two documents,” said Connie Rinaldo, librarian of the Ernst Mayr Library, who—with Joe de Veer, head of technical services at Ernst Mayr—is leading the project. “As soon as two different transcriptions are available for a series of pages, comparisons will be made to extract differences, and we will push those differences to a gaming platform for users to make corrections. Transcription tools we install will remain available so that users can continue to correct it,” Rinaldo said. “Purposeful Gaming intends to demonstrate that digital games are an excellent tool for analyzing and improving digital outputs from OCR and transcription activities because large numbers of users can be harnessed quickly and efficiently to focus on the review and correction of particularly problematic words by being presented the task as a game.”

The interns will work from Brewster’s original notebooks and from electronic images of his diaries, which were digitized with the support of a previous IMLS National Leadership Grant, and they will also market and promote the transcription game.  The interns will also be responsible for marketing and promoting of the transcription game.

Additional grant partners include the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Mann Library of Cornell University and the New York Botanical Garden Library. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­