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Of those 53 miles, just a few millimeters’ worth of pages have been scanned and made available online.
Even fewer pages have been transcribed into computer text and made searchable.
The team recruited students at 24 schools in Italy to build the projects’ memory banks.
Located within the Vatican’s walls, next door to the Apostolic Library and just north of the Sistine Chapel, the VSA houses 53 linear miles of shelving dating back more than 12 centuries.
Each of the images there is composed of a few jigsaw pieces that the OCR software chunked together—its guess at a plausible letter.
The students then judged the OCR’s efforts, telling it which guesses were good and which were bad.
The result is a computational deadlock, sometimes referred to as Sayre’s paradox: OCR software needs to segment a word into individual letters before it can recognize them, but in handwritten texts with connected letters, the software needs to recognize the letters in order to segment them. Some computer scientists have tried to get around this problem by developing OCR to recognize whole words instead of letters.
This works fine technologically—computers don’t “care” whether they’re parsing words or letters.
If you want to peruse anything else, you have to apply for special access, schlep all the way to Rome, and go through every page by hand. Known as In Codice Ratio, it uses a combination of artificial intelligence and optical-character-recognition (OCR) software to scour these neglected texts and make their transcripts available for the very first time.