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  • Digitization of Manuscripts: Months of Searching Can Turn into Hours and Even Minutes

Digitization of Manuscripts: Months of Searching Can Turn into Hours and Even Minutes

Autograph of V.A. Zhukovsky

Autograph of V.A. Zhukovsky
Photo: Tomsk State University

HSE staff members are participating in the ‘Russian Cultural Heritage: Intellectual Analysis and Thematic Modeling of the Corpus of Handwritten Texts’ project. This is aimed at developing a methodology for the automated analysis of manuscripts, eliminating the need for manual processing. HSE News Service spoke to Ekaterina Boltunova, project manager, Professor, Head of the Laboratory 'Russia’s Regions in Historical Perspective' at HSE Faculty of Humanities.

The ‘Russian Cultural Heritage: Intellectual Analysis and Thematic Modeling of the Corpus of Handwritten Texts’ project was launched by the staff of the School of Philology and the Laboratory 'Russia’s Regions in Historical Perspective' at HSE Faculty of Humanities, together with a group of mathematicians from the Faculty of Computational Mathematics and Cybernetics at Lomonosov Moscow State University. Tomsk State University also participated in the project, and the project was supported by the Russian Science Foundation.

Project Overview

In many ways, we owe the idea for this project to the philologist Lyubov Khachaturian, who suggested considering the possibility of processing the handwritten heritage of Russian writers using mathematical methods. Working with Professor Elena Penskaya, they held two conferences on ‘Text as DATA: The Manuscript in Digital Space’ in 2019 and 2020. As well as this,  they launched the website ‘Autograph. XX century’, a site for manuscripts of the classics of 20th century Russian literature.

In 2016, a group of mathematicians led by Professor Leonid Mestetsky joined the work on a collection of raster images of handwritten autographs, which allowed us to commence joint interdisciplinary research on the analysis of some handwritten texts.

I have always found topics related to the introduction of new practices in the study of handwritten texts extremely interesting.

For our lab staff, working with archival documents, primarily handwritten, is an absolute priority and we have visited the archives of many cities and regions

To implement this grant we brought together an interesting team, which includes specialists in humanities, philologists and historians from the HSE and Tomsk State University and mathematicians, representing the Faculty of Computational Mathematics and Cybernetics of Moscow State University.

Ekaterina Boltunova
Photo: HSE University

The Memory of the People: The History of the Second World War

The projects ‘The Memory of the People’ and ‘The Feat of the People’, involving the publication of huge arrays of historical documents from the Great Patriotic War (the Russian name for the part of the Second World War that took place on the territory of the USSR) ,are particularly socially significant.

I remember that my father was deeply moved by the opportunity to find information on one of these resources about his uncle, who went missing in the first months of the war —the family had not been able to find out any information about him for decades.

A large array of digitized data which is open to public access, with documents that you can read from your personal computer, always arouses great interest among researchers. We can recall the attention paid to material relating to the ‘Personal Fund of I.V. Stalin’ and the materials of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the CPSU. But now we would like to focus on materials created during the period of the Russian Empire and the early USSR.

Digitalization of Documents from Pre-revolutionary Russia

We plan to work primarily with sources that have a personal origin — memoirs, diaries and letters. Initially, the work will focus on the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries, that is, a time with a large array of handwritten texts of different types, genres and characters.

We aim to develop an automated navigation system for handwritten text, which will allow the researcher to select the materials necessary for work from a huge array of data, which will dramatically reduce the time spent on text parsing

Search algorithms in the proposed system will be created using handwritten text recognition methods based on reconstructed pen trajectory using grapheme segmentation and identification of continuous morphological models, as well as using machine learning.

The system will allow users to search by keywords, word combinations, dates and locations.

The Role of MSU Mathematicians and Project Partners from Tomsk State University

Professor Leonid Mestetsky, who heads the group of mathematicians working on the project, is one of the most renowned experts in working with artificial intelligence systems, graphical navigation and thematic corpus modeling, as well as recognition of raster images. As part of the project, Mestetsky and his students will develop an automated navigation system for unencrypted manuscripts, while historians and philologists will be engaged in manuscript search and selection.

Our colleagues from Tomsk State University, headed by Professor Vitaly Kiselyov, will join the project working with the materials of the poet Vasily Zhukovsky. In addition to literary activity, he conducted active editorial work, and was an educator of the future Tsar, Alexander II.

Qualitative Acceleration of Work with Texts

The main result of our work will be the development of a programme for working with unstructured data arrays. The publication of digitized materials, combined with the ability to search directly through handwritten text, is a gamechanger. We are talking about an extreme speeding up of the process — months of searching can turn into hours or even minutes.

Of course, in recent years, the possibilities for using artificial intelligence have expanded enormously, it can be applied in many different areas of life, which has sometimes led to apocalyptic predictions. But as a historian, I want to remind you that it’s not the first technological innovation that we’ve seen. Just remember how many fears the introduction of personal computers provoked. But, thank God, we are all still alive and mentally healthy, so we’re continuing our research and hoping for new discoveries.

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