Monday, February 9, 2009

GoogleFight Resolves Unclear Handwriting

I've spent the last couple of weeks as a FromThePage user working seriously on annotation. This mainly involves identifying the people and events mentioned in Julia Brumfield's 1918 diary and writing short articles to appear as hyperlinked pages within the website, or be printed as footnotes following the first mention of the subject. Although my primary resource is a descendant chart in a book of family history, I've also found Google to be surprisingly helpful for people who are neighbors or acquaintances.

Here's a problem I ran into in the entry for June 30, 1918:

In this case, I was trying to identify the name in the middle of the photo. Bo__d Dews. The surname is a bit irregular for Julia's hand, but Dews is a common surname and occurs on the line above. In fact, this name is in the same list as another Mr. Dews, so I felt certain about the surname.

But what to make of the first name? The first two and final letters are clear and consistent: BO and D. The third letter is either an A or a U, and the fourth is either N or R. We can eliminate "Bourd" and "Boand" as unlikely phonetic spellings of any English name, leaving "Bound" and "Board". Neither of these are very likely names... or are they?

I thought I might have some luck by comparing the number and quality of Google search results for each of "Board Dews" and "Bound Dews". This is a pretty common practice used by Wikipedia editors to determine the most common title of a subject, and is sometimes known as a "Google fight". Let's look at the results:

"Bound Dews" yields four search results. The first two are archived titles from FromThePage itself, in which I'd retained a transcription of "Bound(?) Dews" in the text. The next two are randomly-generated strings on a spammer's site. We can't really rule out "Bound Dews" as a name based on this, however.

"Board Dews" yields 104 search results. The first page of results contains one person named Board Dews, who is listed on a genealogist's site as living from 1901 to 1957, and residing in nearby Campbell County. Perhaps more intriguing is the other surnames on the site, all from the area 10 miles east of Julia's home. The second page of results contains three links to a Board Dews, born in 1901 in Pittsylvania County.

At this point, I'm certain that the Bo__d Dews in the diary must be the Board Dews who would have been a seventeen-year-old neighbor. But I'm still astonished that I can resolve a legibility problem in a local diary with a Google search.

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