Breathing new life into old data: how to retro-digitize a dictionary

breis.focloir.ie

A new digital home for granddad and grandma: breis.focloir.ie

I have recently worked on a project where we retro-digitized two Irish dictionaries and published them on the web, so I thought it would be a good idea to summarize my experience here. Hopefully somebody somewhere will find it useful.

In the slang of people who care about such things, retro-digitization is the process of taking a work that had previously been published on paper (often a long time ago, way before computers made their way into publishing) and converting it into a digital, computer-readable format. A bit like retro-fitting a house or pimping up an old car. This involves not only scanning and OCRing the pages, but also structuring and indexing the content so it can be searched and interrogated in ways that would have been impossible on paper. This is the bit that matters most if what you are retro-digitizing is a dictionary.

The dictionaries we retro-digitized are Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla [Irish-English Dictionary] from 1977 (editor Niall Ó Dónaill), and English-Irish Dictionary from 1959 (editor Tomás de Bhaldraithe). Both are sizeable volumes which, despite their age, enjoy the respect, even adoration, of Irish speakers everywhere, are still widely used and widely available in bookshops. People have been saying for ages how nice it would be if we had electronic versions of these. And now we do, available freely to everybody on a website. Here’s how we got there. Continue reading

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