Next Book: OCR Adventures

Raise your hand if you know about OCR! Optical Character Recognition.

Today I sat in the Bowdoin College library reading Løperkongen Mensen Ernst by the Norwegian author Bredo Berntsen. I need to read this book because it's one of only two that have ever been written about the man I believe might be the greatest runner in human history: Mensen Ernst. My next book is about Mensen Ernst who ran from Paris to Moscow in 13 days and 18 hours. That's about 110 miles per day. Or 9 minute miles for 15 hours per day. It's at the very outer limit of human ultra-marathon possibility. But possible?

I got an email notifying me that the book arrived at the Bowdoin library from the Library of Congress as per my World Cat request (yeah, I'm picturing Garfield too). I trudged a frigid quarter mile past lawns buried in two feet of fresh fallen snow to take my new book home to examine. At the front desk, I asked for my inter-library loan book. The librarian and her student worker looked at me like I was a fool. "Are you sure it's an inter-library loan book?" she asked raising her eyebrows. She already knew the answer. Of course it wasn't. Unbeknownst to me, inter-library loan had gone out of fashion. I felt old.

"I think so, it's called-" I gave her the unpronounceable Norwegian gobble-

dee-gook. Finally, after much searching among stacks of other books, the student worker found it, sitting by itself in a cubby marked inter-library loan. The librarian made a little clicking noise and began treating me like an equal. Then book was wrapped in a strongly worded white paper from the Library of Congress. She kindly but firmly informed me that this book could not be removed from the library. I suppose since it is the only copy in the United States, I could abide by that rule.

Prize in hand, I found a table with a nice reading lamp. I would need good lighting. I opened the book and began reading the first pages. I got those little goosebumps of adventure as the words revealed themselves to me. I felt like an old alchemist using a magnifying glass for the first time to see a hidden world inside commonplace objects. Except instead of a magnifying glass, I was holding a smart phone.

I don't read Norwegian and this book is definitely in Norwegian. I don't know how to say the most basic things like hello or beer. My smartphone does though, and with a $10 OCR app called TextGrabber, I was able to read Bredo's words with only a slight delay. Not only could I read them, I saved digitized text files that scanned Bredo's words on paper into digital Norwegian and then translated that Norwegian into English. In about 2 seconds. I read 20 pages of a Norwegian book in half an hour.

Of course, anyone reading this after 2020 will think I'm quaint. Oh, those were the days before flawless instant translation of everything. Language barrier? Were you born in the 20th century or what? I had to let out several audible woooowws and gasps of amazement as paper Norwegian transformed into digital English before my eyes and I emailed myself pages of Bredo's book. It wasn't perfect, I had to retake the photos pretty often, and even then, the translation made his English pretty harsh. But it worked.

Løperkongen conquered, I then began to search for the rarest of them all, the 1844 biography about Mensen Ernst that Løperkongen is based on, the infamous German tome Des Steuermannes Mensen Ernst aus Bergen in Norwegen; See- Land- und Schnell-Reisen in allen fünf Welttheilen by Gustav Rieck. To pronounce that properly, it's very important to yell it loudly with a mouth full of sausage.

I had read a very insightful article by Tony O'Donnel about Mensen Ernst that said that only 2 copies of the book (whose title I won't repeat for brevity, we'll just call it Steuermannes) exist in the world. After some intense Googling, I found one in the Norwegian National Library and emailed them public contact number with the subject line, "book scan?". 

Greta Hysvær wrote me back with amazing news. They would put it in the scanning queue and it should be ready in a few weeks. Hopefully, the magic of OCR can crack this 1840s German nut too once it arrives. Needless to say, Librarians are fearless curators of knowledge and we'll need them forever.

Posted on January 28, 2015 .