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NWO and Brill join forces in research on handwriting and image recognition

20 October 2015

A consortium of computer scientists, historians of science and heritage professionals has been awarded funding by NWO for a research project on making illustrated handwritten archives digitally accessible.

The project Making Sense of Illustrated Handwritten Archives  was submitted jointly by the Leiden Centre of Data Science (LCDS), Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the University of Groningen (ALICE), the University of Leiden (LIACS) and the University of Twente (STePS), and publisher Brill as creative industry partner. It was awarded € 626.000 by the NWO (the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research) Creative Industry programme, matched by Brill’s € 268.000 investment (in cash and in kind).

Many handwritten and illustrated archives contain a wealth of information, but are largely underexplored because of their complex and difficult to decipher nature. The aim of this project is to develop a digital environment that resolves this challenge and connects heterogeneous archival content to other digital sources. The project will be centered around one of the top collections of Naturalis Biodiversity Center: the archive and collection of the Natuurkundige Commissie, which contains a rich verbal and pictoral account of the nature, cultures and economics in the Indonesian archipelago (1820-1850).

The researchers will use an advanced system for handwriting and image recognition (Monk), complemented with contextual information on species, locations and habitats. Naturalis’ taxonomic expertise, in combination with history of science methods, will be used to refine the system further. The outcome of the project will allow Brill to offer the system as an online service for the heritage sector, as a strengthening of its digital humanities profile. This will serve both curators of illustrated handwritten archives and researchers who wish to further the understanding of these collections.

The 4-year project includes the appointment of two computer science PhD students (Leiden, Groningen), a post-doctoral researcher in the history of science (Twente) and a specialist on 19th century taxonomy and natural history (Naturalis). ‘The unique archive of the Natuurkundige Commissie serves as a perfect challenge to combine expertise from different universities and disciplines’, says Brill’s Senior Acquisitions Editor Michiel Thijssen. ‘The resulting technologies will advance the ways in which scholars can study the archived human cultural heritage.’

About Brill
Founded in 1683 in Leiden, the Netherlands, Brill is a leading international academic publisher in 20 main subject areas, including Middle East and Islamic Studies, Asian Studies, Classical Studies, History, Biblical and Religious Studies, Language & Linguistics, Biology, and International Law. With offices in Leiden and Boston and a representative office in Singapore, Brill today publishes 243 journals and around 1000 new books and reference works each year, available in both print and electronic form. Brill also markets a large number of primary source research collections and databases. The company’s key customers are academic and research institutions, libraries, and scholars. Brill is a publicly traded company and is listed on Euronext Amsterdam NV. For more information, visit

Last modified:31 January 2017 11.14 p.m.

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