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$100K Mellon Grant Funds Continuation of Persian, Arabic Digitization Project

By Jessica Weiss ’05

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded a $100,000 grant to support the continued development of user-friendly, open-source software capable of creating digital texts from Persian and Arabic books.

Matthew Thomas Miller, assistant professor in the Roshan Institute for Persian Studies in the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Maryland, leads an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Northeastern University, Aga Khan University in London and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities at Maryland. The Mellon Foundation has been funding the team’s work since 2019.

The project, known as “OpenITI AOCP,” aims to enable the digitization of texts from the premodern Islamicate world—an enormous tradition stretching over 1,000 years. The tools being created by the project team will be free and open to use and will allow academics and the public to produce high-quality digital transcriptions of Persian and Arabic printed texts, from poetry to the Quran.

“Premodern Islamicate textual production is a massive and understudied archive that remains particularly underrepresented in the field of digital humanities,” Miller said. “This democratization of access to digital text production will change the landscape of Islamicate studies.”

Thus far, the project team of computer science and humanities experts has improved the accuracy of Persian and Arabic optical character recognition (OCR) tools, which transfer printed text into machine-encoded text, and have begun experimenting on Ottoman Turkish and Urdu. They are integrating those tools into a platform called eScriptorium. They also held a training session at the University of Maryland in 2020 for OCR experts from all over the world. And they taught a Spring 2021 Global Classrooms course on the basics of computational textual analysis as it relates to textual data about the Islamicate world.

Earlier this year, Miller was awarded $282,905 by the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the project.

To see the full news release, visit arhu.umd.edu.

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