English Street Art, Full Text Searching and Raising the Dead

“Crane” by Banksy, available at http://www.banksy.co.uk

“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”

This quote, attributed to anonymous and ubiquitous English street artist Banksy, is a surprisingly profound viewpoint on memory and mortality, and it got me to thinking: if that’s true, then couldn’t full-text searching serve as a means of “resurrecting” the dead?

Stick with me here.

Wherever possible, we run optical character recognition (OCR) on the materials we’re digitizing and adding to our digital collections. The process involves a piece of software scanning the text in an image and looking for patterns that match letters and groups of letters that it “recognizes” as words. Those patterns are then matched against a dictionary in the software’s database, and where a match is found, it is embedded into the image as a layer of machine-readable text. It’s the way we’re able to provide full-text searching for our materials, and with our current software solutions we’re able to achieve almost 100% accuracy in some cases.

Running OCR on items with printed text is de rigueur for most digital collections. It’s almost mandatory if you want your collections to show up in Google, Bing or other search engines, as the more “harvestable” data you have in your collections, the better chance those engines will ingest it and make it available for people searching for a particular word or phrase.

We’re seeing lots of activity on our collections related to what I would call genealogist/family history searches. Often, it’s someone looking for information on a relative who attended Baylor at some point in the past. They will enter a simple search string in Google – James A. Smith Baylor University 1918 – and the results will almost always bring them to an item in our digital collections. Now, no one in our office sat down and typed James A. Smith’s name into the metadata for the 1918 Round Up, for example, so the researcher was only able to find it because the OCR’d text generated a hit via the search engine.

Pattie Orr, Dean of University Libraries and VP for Information Technology, has often remarked that she’s seen potential donors and friends of the library get truly excited when she demos our system to them by typing in a family member’s name and seeing what comes up. They are often overjoyed at the opportunity to read about a favorite grandfather’s exploits in a debate club, or to see photos of their aunt posing with her sorority sisters. Dean Orr notes that this kind of connection often serves to create informed advocates for the work we’re doing, as they are able to show and tell others about the treasures they’ve discovered in our collections.

Which leads me to this final thought: as more and more genealogists, researchers, faculty members and casual historians are accessing our materials, they are going to be encountering the names, faces and stories of people who may have died centuries ago. Many of them passed from this earth so long ago that no one living today has ever said their name aloud. So any time a great-great-great granddaughter finds her antecedent’s name in our collection and says it aloud for the first time, it could very well be the first time anyone has done so in decades.

That simple act of saying a name can truly serve as a resurrection – not of a body, but of a story, an identity, a history. And we are more than happy to serve as a the avenue for something so important.

Bonus Content

Just for fun, here are some of my favorite names I’ve run across during my work with our collections. Feel like “resurrecting” one of your favorites? Just say it out loud!

Carlyne Trautwein

Odo Surratt

Hettie Clegg

W.M.W. Splawn

L. Blum Wootters

Wilby T. Gooch

Cloantha Copass

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