Digital scholarship blog

23 January 2018

Using Transkribus for handwritten text recognition with the India Office Records

In this post, Alex Hailey, Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts, describes the Library's work with handwritten text recognition.

National Handwriting Day seems like a good time to introduce the Library’s initial work with the Transkribus platform to produce automatic Handwritten Text Recognition models for use with the India Office Records.

Transkribus is produced and supported as part of the READ project, and provides a platform 'for the automated recognition, transcription and searching of historical documents'. Users upload images and then identify areas of writing (text regions) and lines within those regions. Once a page has been segmented in this way, users transcribe the text to produce a 'ground truth' transcription – an accurate representation of the text on the page. The ground truth texts and images are then used to train a recurrent neural network to produce a tool to transcribe texts from images: a Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) model.

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Page segmented using the automated line identification tool. The document structure tree can be seen in the left panel.

After hearing about the project at the Linnean Society’s From Cabinet to Internet conference in 2015, we decided to run a small pilot project using material digitised as part of the Botany in British India project.

Producing ground truth text and Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) models

We created an initial set of ground truth training data for 200 images, produced by India Office curators and with the help of a PhD student. This data was sent to the Transkribus team to produce our first HTR model. We also supplied material for the construction of a dictionary to be used alongside the HTR, based on the text from the botany chapter of Science and the Changing Environment in India 1780-1920 and contemporary botanical texts.

The accuracy of an HTR model can be determined by generating an automated transcription, correcting any errors, and then comparing the two versions. The Transkribus comparison tool calculates a Character Error Rate (CER) and a Word Error Rate (WER), and also provides a handy visualisation. With our first HTR model we saw an average CER of 30% and WER of 50%, which reflected the small size of the training set and the number of different hands across the collections.

(Transkribus recommends using collections with one or two consistent hands, but we thought we would push on regardless to get an idea of the challenges when using complex, multi-authored archives).

WER and CER are quite unforgiving measures of accuracy. The image above has 18.5% WER and 9.5% CER

For our second model we created an additional 500 pages of ground truth text, resulting in a training set of 83,358 words over 14,599 lines. We saw a marked improvement in results with this second HTR model – an average WER of 30%, and CER of 15%.

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Graph showing the learning curve for our second HTR model, measured in CER

Improvements in the automatic layout detection and the ability to run the HTR over images in batch means that we can now generate ground truth more quickly by correcting computer-produced transcriptions than we could through a fully-manual process. We have since generated and corrected an additional 200 pages of transcriptions, and have expanded the training dataset for our next HTR model.

Lessons learned and next steps

We have now produced over 800 pages of corrected transcriptions using Transkribus, and have a much better idea of the challenges that the India Office material poses for current HTR technologies. Pages with margins and inconsistent paragraph widths prove challenging for the automatic layout detection, although the line identification has improved significantly, and tends to require only minor corrections (if any). Faint text, numerals, and tabulated text appeared to pose problems for our HTR models, as did particularly elaborate or lengthy ascenders and descenders.

More positively, we have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the READ project, and are now able to take part in the exciting conversations around the transcription and searching of digitised manuscript materials, which we can hopefully start to feed into developments at the Library. The presentations from the recent Transkribus Conference are a good place to start if you want to learn more.

The transcriptions will be made available to researchers via, and we are also planning to use them to test the ingest and delivery of transcriptions for manuscript material via the Universal Viewer.

By Alex Hailey, Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

If you liked this post, you might also be interested in The good, the bad, and the cross-hatched on the Untold Lives blog.