Category: Digitization

  • Understanding reCAPTCHA

    reCAPTCHAOne of the things I added to this blog when I moved from my own software to WordPress was the red and yellow box in the comments section, which defends this blog against comment spam by asking commenters to decipher a couple of words. Such challenge-response systems are called CAPTCHAs (a tortured and unmellifluous acroynm of “completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart”). What really caught my imagination about the CAPTCHA I’m using, called reCAPTCHA, is that it uses words from books scanned by the Internet Archive/Open Content Alliance. Thus at the same time commenters solve the word problems they are effectively serving as human OCR machines.

    To date, about two million words have been deciphered using reCAPTCHA (see the article in Technology Review lauding reCAPTCHA’s mastermind, Luis von Ahn), which is a great start but by my calculation (100,000 words per average book) only the equivalent of about 20 books. Of course, it’s really much more than that because the words in reCAPTCHA are the hardest ones to decipher by machine and are sprinkled among thousands of books.

    Indeed, that is the true genius of reCAPTCHA—it “tells computers and humans apart” by first using OCR software to find words computers can’t decipher, then feeds those words to humans, who can decipher the words (proving themselves human). Therefore a spammer running OCR software (as many of them do to decipher lesser CAPTCHAs), will have great difficulty cracking it. If you would like an in-depth lesson about how reCAPTCHA (and CAPTCHAs in general) works, take a listen to Steve Gibson’s podcast on the subject.

    The brilliance of reCAPTCHA and its simultaneous assistance to the digital commons leads one to ponder: What other aspects of digitization, cataloging, and research could be aided by giving a large, distributed group of humans the bits that computers have great difficulty with?

    And imagine the power of this system if all 60 million CAPTCHAs answered daily were reCAPTCHAs instead. Why not convert your blog or login system to reCAPTCHA today?

  • Google Books: Champagne or Sour Grapes?

    Beyond Good and EvilIs it possible to have a balanced discussion of Google’s outrageously ambitious and undoubtedly flawed project to scan tens of millions of books in dozens of research libraries? I have noted in this space the advantages and disadvantages of Google Books—sometimes both at one time. Heck, the only time this blog has ever been seriously “dugg” is when I noted the appearance of fingers in some Google scans. Google Books is an easy target.

    This week Paul Duguid has received a lot of positive press (e.g., Peter Brantley, if:book) for his dressing down of Google Books, “Inheritance and loss? A brief survey of Google Books.” It’s a very clever article, using poorly scanned Google copies of Lawrence Sterne’s absurdist and raunchy comedy Tristram Shandy to reveal the extent of Google’s folly and their “disrespect” for physical books.

    I thought I would enjoy reading Duguid’s article, but I found myself oddly unenthusiastic by the end.

    Of course Google has poor scans—as the saying goes, haste makes waste—but this is not a scientific survey of the percentage of pages that are unreadable or missing (surely less than 0.1% in my viewing of scores of Victorian books). Nor does the article note that Google might have possible remedies for some of these inadequacies. For example, they almost certainly have higher-resolution, higher-contrast scans that are different than the lo-res ones they display (a point made at the Million Books workshop; they use the originals for OCR), which they can revisit to produce better copies for the web. Just as they have recently added commentary to Google News, they could have users flag problematic pages. Truly bad books could be rescanned or replaced by other libraries’ versions.

    Most egregiously, none of the commentaries I have seen on Duguid’s jeremiad have noted the telling coda to the article: “This paper is based on a talk given to the Society of Scholarly Publishers, San Francisco, 6 June 2007. I am grateful to the Society for the invitation.” The question of playing to the audience obviously arises.

    Google Books will never be perfect, or even close. Duguid is right that it disrespects age-old, critical elements of books. (Although his point that Google disrespects metadata strangely fails to note that Google is one of the driving forces behind the Future of Bibliographic Control meetings, which are all about metadata.) Google Books is the outcome, like so many things at Google, of a mathematical challenge: How can you scan tens of millions of books in five years? It’s easy to say they should do a better job and get all the details right, but if you do the calculations of that assessment, you’ll probably see that the perfect library scanning project would take 50 years rather than 5. As in OCR, getting from 98% to 100% accuracy would probably take an order of magnitude longer and be an order of magnitude more expensive. That’s the trade-off they have decided to make, and as a company interested in search, where near-100% accuracy is unnecessary (I have seen OCR specialists estimate that even 90% accuracy is perfectly fine for search), it must have been an easy decision to make.

    Complaining about the quality, thoroughness, and fidelity of Google’s (public) scans distracts us from the larger problem of Google Books. As I have argued repeatedly in this space, the real problem—especially for those in the digital humanities but also for many others—is that Google Books is not open. Recently they have added the ability to view some books in “plain text” (i.e., the OCRed text, but it’s hard to copy text from multiple pages at once), and even in some cases to download PDFs of public domain works. But those moves don’t go far enough for scholarly needs. We need what Cliff Lynch of CNI has called “computational access,” a higher level of access that is less about reading a page image on your computer than applying digital tools and analyses to many pages or books at one time to create new knowledge and understanding.

    An API would be ideal for this purpose if Google doesn’t want to expose their entire collection. Google has APIs for most of their other projects—why not Google Books?

    [Image courtesy of Ubisoft.]

  • The “Google Five” Describe Progress, Challenges

    Among other things learned by the original five libraries that signed up with Google to have their collections digitized is this gem: “About one percent of the Bodleian Library’s books have uncut pages, meaning they’ve never been opened.” I used to find books like this at Yale and felt quite bad for their authors. Imagine all of the effort that goes into writing a book–and then no one, for hundreds of years at Oxford or Yale (bookish places with esoteric interests, wouldn’t you say?), takes even a peek inside. Evidently the long tail doesn’t quite extend all the way.

  • Google Books: What’s Not to Like?

    The American Historical Association’s Rob Townsend takes some sharp jabs at Google’s ambitious library scanning project. Some of the comments are equally sharp.

  • “The Object of History” Site Launches

    Thanks to the hard work of my colleagues at the Center for History and New Media, led by Sharon Leon, you can now go behind the scenes with the curators of the National Museum of American History. This month the discussion begins with the famous Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter and the origins of the Civil Rights movement. Each month will highlight a new object and its corresponding context, delivered in rich multimedia and with the opportunity to chat with the curators themselves.

  • A Closer Look at the National Archives-Footnote Agreement

    I’ve spent the past two weeks trying to get a better understanding of the agreement signed by the National Archives and Footnote, about which I raised several concerns in my last post. Before making further (possibly unfounded) criticisms I thought it would a good idea to talk to both NARA and Footnote. So I picked up the phone and found several people eager to clarify things. At NARA, Jim Hastings, director of access programs, was particularly helpful in explaining their perspective. (Alas, NARA’s public affairs staff seemed to have only the sketchiest sense of key details.) Most helpful—and most eager to rebut my earlier post—were Justin Schroepfer and Peter Drinkwater, the marketing director and product lead at Footnote. Much to their credit, Justin and Peter patiently answered most of my questions about the agreement and the operation of the Footnote website.

    Surprisingly, everyone I spoke to at both NARA and Footnote emphasized that despite the seemingly set-in-stone language of the legal agreement, there is a great deal of latitude in how it is executed, and they asked me to spread the word about how historians and the general public can weigh in. It has received virtually no publicity, but NARA is currently in a public comment phase for the Footnote (a/k/a iArchives) agreement. Scroll down to the bottom of the “Comment on Draft Policy” page at NARA’s website and you’ll find a request for public comment (you should email your thoughts to It’s a little odd to have a request for comment after the ink is dry on an agreement or policy, and this URL probably should have been included in the press release of the Footnote agreement, but I do think after speaking with them that both NARA and Footnote are receptive to hearing responses to the agreement. Indeed, in response to this post and my prior post on the agreement, Footnote has set up a web page, “Finding the Right Balance,” to receive feedback from the general public on the issues I’ve raised. They also asked me to round up professional opinion on the deal.

    I assume Footnote will explain their policies in greater depth on their blog, but we agreed that it would be helpful to record some important details of our conversations in this space. Here are the answers Justin and Peter gave to a few pointed questions.

    When I first went to the Footnote site, I was unpleasantly surprised that it required registration even to look at “milestone” documents like Lincoln’s draft of the Gettysburg Address. (Unfortunately, Footnote doesn’t have a list of all of its free content yet, so it’s hard to find such documents.) Justin and Peter responded that when they launched the site there was an error in the document viewer, so they had to add authentication to all document views. A fix was rolled out on January 23, and it’s now possible to view these important documents without registering.

    You do need to register, however, to print or download any document, whether it’s considered “free” or “premium.” Why? Justin and Peter candidly noted that although they have done digitization projects before, the National Archives project, which contains millions of critical—and public domain—documents, is a first for them. They are understandably worried about the “leakage” of documents from their site, and want to take it one step at a time. So to start they will track all downloads to see how much escapes, especially in large batches. I noted that downloading and even reusing these documents (even en masse) very well might be legal, despite Footnote’s terms of service, because the scans are “slavish” copies of the originals, which are not protected by copyright. Footnote lawyers are looking at copyright law and what other primary-source sites are doing, and they say that they view these initial months as a learning experience to see if the terms of service can or should change. Footnote’s stance on copyright law and terms of usage will clearly be worth watching.

    Speaking of terms of usage, I voiced a similar concern about Footnote’s policies toward minors. As you’ll recall, Footnote’s terms of service say the site is intended for those 18 and older, thus seeming to turn away the many K-12 classes that could take advantage of it. Justin and Peter were most passionate on this point. They told me that Footnote would like to give free access to the site for the K-12 market, but pointed to the restrictiveness of U.S. child protection laws. Because the Footnote site allows users to upload documents as well as view them, they worry about what youngsters might find there in addition to the NARA docs. These laws also mandate the “over 18” clause because the site captures personal information. It seems to me that there’s probably a technical solution that could be found here, similar to the one uses to provide K-12 teaching materials without capturing information from the students.

    Footnote seems willing to explore such a possibility, but again, Justin and Peter chalked up problems to the newness of the agreement and their inexperience running an interactive site with primary documents such as these. Footnote’s lawyers consulted (and borrowed, in some cases) the boilerplate language from terms of service at other sites, like But again, the Footnote team emphasized that they are going to review the policies and look into flexibility under the laws. They expect to tweak their policies in the coming months.

    So, now is your chance to weigh in on those potential changes. If you do send a comment to either Footnote or NARA, try to be specific in what you would like to see. For instance, at the Center for History and New Media we are exploring the possibility of mining historical texts, which will only be possible to do on these millions of NARA documents if the Archives receives not only the page images from Footnote but also the OCRed text. (The handwritten documents cannot be automatically transcribed using optical character recognition, of course, but there are many typescript documents that have been converted to machine-readable text.) NARA has not asked to receive the text for each document back from Footnote—only the metadata and a combined index of all documents. There was some discussion that NARA is not equipped to handle the flood of data that a full-text database would entail. Regardless, I believe it would be in the best interest of historical researchers to have NARA receive this database, even if they are unable to post it to the web right away.

  • The Flawed Agreement between the National Archives and Footnote, Inc.

    I suppose it’s not breaking news that libraries and archives aren’t flush with cash. So it must be hard for a director of such an institution when a large corporation, or even a relatively small one, comes knocking with an offer to digitize one’s holdings in exchange for some kind of commercial rights to the contents. But as a historian worried about open access to our cultural heritage, I’m a little concerned about the new agreement between Footnote, Inc. and the United States National Archives. And I’m surprised that somehow this agreement has thus far flown under the radar of all of those who attacked the troublesome Smithsonian/Showtime agreement. Guess what? From now until 2012 it will cost you $100 a year, or even more offensively, $1.99 a page, for online access to critical historical documents such as the Papers of the Continental Congress.

    This was the agreement signed by Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein and Footnote, Inc., a Utah-based digital archives company, on January 10, 2007. For the next five years, unless you have the time and money to travel to Washington, you’ll have to fork over money to Footnote to take a peek at Civil War pension documents or the case files of the early FBI. The National Archives says this agreement is “non-exclusive”—I suppose crossing their fingers that Google will also come along and make a deal—but researchers shouldn’t hold their breaths for other options., the website that provide access to these millions of documents, charges for anything more than viewing a small thumbnail of a page or photograph. Supposedly the value-added of the site (aside from being able to see detailed views of the documents) is that it allows you to save and annotate documents in your own library, and share the results of your research (though not the original documents). Hmm, I seem to remember that there’s a tool being developed that will allow you to do all of that—for free, no less.

    Moreover, you’ll also be subject to some fairly onerous terms of usage on, especially considering that this is our collective history and that all of these documents are out of copyright. (For a detailed description of the legal issues involved here, please see Chapter 7 of Digital History, “Owning the Past?”, especially the section covering the often bogus claims of copyright on scanned archival materials.) I’ll let the terms speak for themselves (plus one snide aside): “Professional historians and others conducting scholarly research may use the Website [gee, thanks], provided that they do so within the scope of their professional work, that they obtain written permission from us before using an image obtained from the Website for publication, and that they credit the source. You further agree that…you will not copy or distribute any part of the Website or the Service in any medium without’s prior written authorization.”

    Couldn’t the National Archives have at least added a provision to the agreement with Footnote to allow students free access to these documents? I guess not; from the terms of usage: “The Website is intended for adults over the age of 18.” What next? Burly bouncers carding people who want to see the Declaration of Independence?

  • Five Catalonian Libraries Join the Google Library Project

    The Google Library Project has, for the most part, focused on American libraries, thus pushing the EU to mount a competing project; will this announcement (which includes the National Library of Barcelona), coming on the heels of an agreement with the Complutense University of Madrid, signal the beginning of Google making inroads in Europe?

  • Google Fingers

    No, it’s not another amazing new piece of software from Google, which will type for you (though that would be nice). Just something that I’ve noticed while looking at many nineteenth-century books in Google’s massive digitization project. The following screenshot nicely reminds us that at the root of the word “digitization” is “digit,” which is from the Latin word “digitus,” meaning finger. It also reminds us that despite our perception of Google as a collection of computer geniuses, and despite their use of advanced scanning technology, their library project involves an almost unfathomable amount of physical labor. I’m glad that here and there, the people doing this difficult work (or at least their fingers) are being immortalized.

    [The first page of a Victorian edition of Plato’s Euthyphron, a dialogue about the origin and nature of piety. Insert your own joke here about Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto.]

  • Google Book Search Blog

    For those interested in the Google book digitization project (one of my three copyright-related stories to watch for 2006), Google launched an official blog yesterday. Right now “Inside Google Book Search” seems more like “Outside Google Book Search,” with a first post celebrating the joys of books and discovery, and with a set of links lauding the project, touting “success stories,” and soliciting participation from librarians, authors, and publishers. Hopefully we’ll get more useful insider information about the progress of the project, hints about new ways of searching millions of books, and other helpful tips for scholars in the near future. As I recently wrote in an article in D-Lib Magazine, Google’s project has some serious—perhaps fatal—flaws for those in the digital humanities (not so for the competing, but much smaller, Open Content Alliance). In particular, it would be nice to have more open access to the text (rather than mere page images) of pre-1923 books (i.e., those that are out of copyright). Of course, I’m a historian of the Victorian era who wants to scan thousands of nineteenth-century books using my own digital tools, not a giant company that may want to protect its very expensive investment in digitizing whole libraries.