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Humans and computers to work together to unlock treasures of the past

06 May 2021

Dublin City Libraries and the Digital Repository of Ireland (DRI) are part of a pan-European consortium selected for major European Commission funding for their project EnrichEuropeana+.

This exciting initiative will combine citizen science and artificial intelligence to unlock handwritten documents from the 19th Century and make them available to researchers, students, amateur historians and the public.

Joining them in this innovative project will be Dutch, German, Polish, Austrian, and Croatian partner institutions.

Project Aims

There is a wealth of information about 19th century history laying mostly dormant in archives. Most of the original sources are available only in handwritten form and because of that cannot be accessed on a large scale. 

In order to solve this problem the project will digitise important handwritten documents, and use a combination of Artificial Intelligence and contributions from members of the public acting as ‘Citizen Scientists’, to transcribe these handwritten documents.  

The project will leverage the Europeana platform, which empowers the cultural heritage sector in its digital transformation, providing a single shared portal for Cultural Heritage content from across Europe. It builds upon previous funded EU projects which have developed the Europeana platform, the Transcribathon platform for crowdsourcing transcriptions on Europeana, and the Transkribus automated transcription tool. The project will involve applying natural language processing and big data analysis technology to analyse transcriptions and their translations, providing support for semantic metadata enrichment, clustering and classification. What previously would have taken days and days to decipher will be readable in a matter of minutes, saving researchers valuable time and unlocking our history.

Irish Contributions

Dublin City Libraries will contribute Dublin City Council minutes from 1841 - 1881 and documents from the  Wide Streets Commission. (The Wide Street Commission 1758 - 1851 was responsible for changing Dublin from a medieval warren of route ways to the basis of the modern layout we know today.)   Dublin City Libraries will also encourage and organise members of the public to transcribe this historic handwritten material. The handcrafted transcriptions will form training data for the Artificial Intelligence data models. 

The Digital Repository of Ireland, Irish National Aggregator for Europeana, will develop functionality to integrate the outputs from these AI technologies into the DRI trustworthy digital repository, which provides long-term preservation and access to Ireland’s cultural heritage data. The DRI technical team, based in Trinity College Dublin, will also work with Trinity College Library and other DRI member organisations, to identify suitable digital collections for aggregation to Europeana, and inclusion in the Transcribathon platform.

Dublin City Librarian Mairead Owens said:

'Dublin City Libraries is delighted to embark on this important cutting edge cultural heritage project with our European partners. We are excited to see how these new technologies will open our unique collections and Dublin’s rich history to users across Europe and the world. It is wonderful to have the general public involved in transcribing these rare handwritten documents – it is only by combining technology with human knowledge and expertise that these archival treasuries become unlocked.'

DRI Director Dr Natalie Harrower said:

'The purpose of preserving digital materials for the long term is to ensure that they are accessible over the long term; sometimes this means ensuring integrity, migrating file formats or emulating computational environments, but at other times, such as with this project, it means deciphering texts so they are more readable, and mineable for deeper analysis. We are longstanding partners of Europeana and have worked closely with Dublin City Libraries on a number of exciting projects in the last number of years, so this particular partnership, along with other European partners, is very welcome. We have also conducted public history projects in the past, such as with the Inspiring Ireland 1916 project, which merge public collections with private efforts, and this brings an exciting dimension to archival work.'

The project shall run from 01/04/2021 until 30/09/2022.

Visit the project website 

Project partners

  • Austrian Institute of Technology - Austria
  • Stichting Europeana -  The Netherlands
  • Facts & Files Historisches Forschungsinstitut Berlin Drauschke - Germany
  • Instytut Chemii Bioorganicznej Polskiej Akademii Nauk - Poland
  • Read-Coop SCE - Austria
  • The Provost, Fellows, Foundation Scholars and the other members of Board, of the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin - Ireland
  • Dublin City Council - Ireland
  • Uniwersytet Wrocławski - Poland
  • State Archives in Zagreb - Croatia

Article image: Woman who writes letters Creator: Albert Edelfe,lt, Date: 1887, Institution: Nationalmuseum, Country: Sweden

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