Digitizing historical records using OCR is more important to preservation than many museums may realize.

Just think what we would know today if the Dead Sea Scrolls were preserved digitally instead of being submerged in water. Today, historians puzzle over the meaning of these scrolls, and strive to piece together information from the Scrolls–all because they weren’t preserved as intended.

If the technology we have today (which will discuss in this post) existed at the time of the writing of many historical documents, we would have much more information at our disposal.

Our shared history as a culture is a very valuable part of our identity, and one of the biggest elements of that communal history is the written record our forefathers have left behind. Of course, that written record exists largely only on paper, and paper is a notoriously fragile medium.

Paper is incredibly susceptible to destruction by fire or water and is prone to disintegration if left untouched for long enough. One way or another, every bit of the written record that is written on a piece of paper will—given enough time—cease to exist, and the writing that it preserved will be lost for good.

Of course, there is a way around this unfortunate reality. One can simply transfer what is written to a new source—be it by a photocopy or a manual copy of the original text. However, if that new version is on a piece of paper, you have simply delayed a process that will never truly end until a new type of storage is provided.

Electronic Data Storage Is the Best Way to Preserve Historical Records

Of course, we live in the 21st century, and you know well that this new source is here, because you are using it to read this post right now! Obviously, digitization is the best way to ensure that our written record is encapsulated in a source that will last for as long as we can conceive.

Once a document’s contents are entered into a digital format, not only can they easily be replicated as many times as you want and moved from device to device, but—with new innovations such as document management systems (which are different than cloud storage)—they can be protected by a global information safety net so they can never be lost or destroyed.

So what is the best way to digitize the almost uncountable number of documents such as newspapers, aging books gathering dust in libraries, and government data that exists throughout the world? Having people type them into a computer would likely take a small army of paid employees.

You could scan the documents into a computer, but this would still take an overwhelming amount of man power, time, and physical space.  At the end of the day, you may just end up with an image that wouldn’t let you interact with the text should you need to, depending on the software utilized.

Optical Character Recognition Can Streamline Digitization of Historical Records

Digitizing historical records using OCR But how much time would it save if a computer could simply read the documents and then enter the text itself, giving you something much like a Word document that could be searched and edited if necessary?

This is exactly what optical character recognition (OCR) software aims to provide. OCR technology allows a computer to look at a document, decipher the character it detects, and transcribe them to the program it is associated with.

OCR technology can take a dense tome, like a book of records or legal jargon, and make it so you can find precisely what you are looking for. Gone will be the days of cross-referencing confusing appendixes and hunting down obscure source material in the back of a massive college library.

A quick search-and-find function will send you to the exact part of any written material that you need, and if you do need to look up source material, you’ll be able to pull up right next to the current document on your laptop in seconds.

Digitizing historical records using OCR technology makes searching through documents easier and faster, but it also democratizes these documents.

Once a file has been digitized, it can instantly be read anywhere on the globe, so that anyone with an internet connection has the capability to access any part of that shared written record.

Without digitization of important, historical records, even timeless documents can be stained by the effects of time: Document spotting and quality compromise can negatively impact the imaging process, failing to keep documents and files from history in mint, view-able condition.

Digitizing Historical Records Using OCR Can Lead to Unexpected Discoveries

Think of all the stories and the information currently tucked away on a hard-to-use medium that, if digitized, would be instantly accessible. Also, once text has been digitized, it can be utilized; a computer could scan through the history of weather patterns, look at old data to help solve crimes, or complete many other useful applications.

Digitizing historical records using OCR lets you think in terms of what’s really important. When you think of historical documents, you might just conjure up things like the Declaration of Independence or Magna Carta, but it’s much broader than that. Think of the microfilm with the local paper on it. Inside every tiny library in every small town across America, and then you’ll know why digitizing historical records using OCR is truly a noteworthy cause.

Paper has been a wonderful tool that we have been lucky to be able to utilize throughout human history, and the loss of any of our wonderful paper artifacts would be a tragedy. But the permanent loss of the information that they contained would be unacceptable.

OCR is providing a way that we can guarantee that information will continue to exist—both for ourselves and for our descendants.

As a treasury or storehouse for important records in our past, OCR can benefit museums, galleries, and any institution striving to maintain the integrity of records that need preservation.