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OBR: Optical Braille Recognition

In the interest of talking about new topics – I opened my little moleskine notebook and found a note to myself wondering if it is possible to scan Braille with the equivalent of OCR.

Enter Optical Braille Recognition or OBR. Created by a company called Neovision, this software will permit anyone with a scanner and a Windows platform computer to ‘read’ Braille documents.

Why was this in my notebook? I was thinking about unusual records that must be out in the world and wondering about how to improve access to the information within them. So if there are Braille records out there – how does the sighted person who can’t read Braille get at that information? Here is an answer. Not only does the OBR permit reading of Braille documents – but it would permit recreation of these same documents in Braille from any computer that has the right technology.

Reading through the Wikipedia Braille entry, I learned a few things that would throw a monkey wrench into some of this. For example – “because the six-dot Braille cell only offers 64 possible combinations, many Braille characters have different meanings based on their context”. The page on Braille code lists links to an assortment of different Braille codes which translate the different combinations of dots into different characters depending on the language of the text. On top of the different Braille codes used to translate Braille into specific letters or characters – there is another layer to Braille transcription. Grade 2 Braille uses a specific set of contractions and shorthand – and is used for official publications and things like menus, while Grade 3 Braille is used in the creation of personal letters.

It all goes back to context (of course!). If you have a set of Braille documents with no information on them giving you details of what sort of documents they are – you have a document that is effectively written in code. Is it music written in Braille Music notation? Is it a document in Hiranga using the Japanese Code? Is this a personal letter using Grade 3 Braille shorthand? You get the idea.

I suspect that one might even want to include a copy of both the Braille Code and the Braille transcription rules that go with a set of documents as a key to their translation in the future. If there are frequently used records – they could perhaps include the transcription (both literal transcription and a ‘translation’ of all the used Braille contractions) to improve access of analog records.

In a quick search for collections including braille manuscripts it should come as no surprise that the Helen Keller Archives does have “braille correspondence”. I also came across the finding aids for the Harvard Law School Examinations in Braille (1950-1985) and The Donald G. Morgan Papers (the papers of a blind professor at Mount Holyoke College).

I wonder how many other collections have Braille records or manuscripts. Has anyone reading this ever seen or processed a collection including Braille records?

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