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$1.75M Grant to Continue Expansion of Digital Access to Books From Pre-modern Islamicate World

By Jessica Weiss ’05

The University of Maryland has received a $1.75 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to continue development of open-source technology to expand digital access to manuscripts and books from the premodern Islamicate world in Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Urdu.

Matthew Thomas Miller, assistant professor in the Roshan Institute for Persian Studies in the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, leads an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Northeastern University, Aga Khan University in London, the University of California, San Diego along with Raffaele Viglianti of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. The Mellon Foundation has been funding the project, known as “OpenITI AOCP,” since 2019.

“We are honored that the foundation continues to support our efforts to expand access to and digitally preserve such a rich and important cultural tradition,” Miller said.

Hundreds of thousands—perhaps even millions—of premodern Islamicate books and manuscripts can’t be accessed digitally by academics or the public, Miller said.

So far, the project team—made up of computer science and humanities experts—has improved the accuracy of open-source Persian and Arabic optical character recognition (OCR) software, which turns physical, printed documents into machine-readable text. Under the new grant, it will use this OCR software to produce 2,500 new digitized Persian and Arabic texts, as well as expand the OCR system’s capabilities into Ottoman Turkish and Urdu.

The team also aims to improve the accuracy of open-source handwritten text recognition (HTR) for Arabic-script manuscripts. A subfield of OCR technology, HTR tools are designed to read a diversity of human handwriting types with high levels of accuracy.

In addition, it will roll out a user-friendly redesign of its eScriptorium platform, which hosts the open-source tools. This latest Mellon grant will last three years. (Last year, Miller also received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the project.)

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