David Dickinson and New Testament manuscripts

Yesterday David Dickinson came to visit the libraries to share and discuss some of his work regarding optical character recognition of New Testament manuscripts.

David Dickinson is a South Bend resident and Renaissance Man with a multifaceted educational background and vocational history. Along the way he became keenly interested in religion as well as computer programming. On and off for the past five years or so, and working in conjunction with the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, he has been exploring the possibilities of optical character recognition against New Testament manuscripts. Input very large digitized images of a really, really old original New Testament manuscripts. Programmatically examine each man-made mark in the image. Use artificial intelligence computing techniques to determine (or guess) which “letter” the mark represents. Save the resulting transcription to a file. And finally, provide a means for the Biblical scholar to simultaneously compare the image with the resulting transcription and a “canonical” version of a displayed chapter/verse.

David’s goal is not so much to replace the work being done by scholars but rather to save their time. Using statistical techniques, he knows computer programs can work tirelessly to transcribe texts. These transcriptions are then expected to be reviewed by people. The results are then expected to be shared widely thus enabling other scholars to benefit.

David’s presentation was attended by approximately twenty people representing the Libraries, the Center for Social Research, and the Center for Research Computing. After the formal presentation a number of us discussed how David’s technology may or may not be applicable to the learning, teaching, and scholarship being done here at the University. For example, there are a number of Biblical scholars on campus, but many of them seem to focus on the Old Testament as opposed to the New Testament. The technology was deemed interesting but some people thought it could not replace man-made transcriptions. Others wondered about the degree the technology could be applied against manuscripts other the New Testament. In the end there were more questions than answers.

Next steps? Most of us thought David’s ideas were not dead-ends. Consequently, it was agreed that next steps will include presenting the technology to local scholars in an effort to learn whether or not it is applicable to their needs and the University’s.

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