Why we are here

Dear friends, Transkribians, Members,


We could have chosen an easier, more profitable path—treated text recognition as just another business case. Let’s talk about why we haven’t. Why do we believe in the future of the past? Why are we doing this as a cooperative and not a “normal”, profit-oriented company?

We come from academia and historical documents are our absolute passion. Think of the wealth of data, knowledge, and stories they contain, slumbering untapped on millions and millions of pages tucked away in archives, libraries, and museums, and in attics, cellars, and shoeboxes all around the world. We wanted to recover that treasure. So, back in 2013, we got started on the first of two EU-funded projects, to get to grips with the technology. Text recognition AI was in its infancy back then. Over the course of six years, with research partners from all over Europe, we built core components for enabling automated text recognition of handwritten documents. Other technologies, for information extraction, would soon follow.

Why did we do this? To fulfill our main mission: to unlock the written past of us humans. The written past can be seen as the broadest definition of history. History is information about who we were, how we have become who we are. From it, we can learn who we want to be. How do we want to work in the future? How do we want to distribute resources? How do we want to make and enjoy art? How will we do medicine? How will we continue to be human? Crucial questions in times when AI seems to be taking over everything. But AI is not just a challenge—it can also help us navigate these stormy waters of innovation, by cracking the code of history and telling us more about ourselves, and how to handle industrial revolution number four. It can help us make document collections available, searchable, re-searchable. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. We are here to unlock the past.

But who is “we”? There is a strong human component to this great adventure. Transkribus was built not just as a tool, but as a community. By 2019 more than 20,000 people from around the world, from countless fields and with innumerable backgrounds, had signed up, all with the same goal: to make the contents of historical documents accessible. The idea that evolved from this over time was to build the most important platform in historical technology, not as a means of earning profits for shareholders, but to enable stakeholders to collaboratively make every single historical document on the planet accessible. A tall order, we know. But at the core of read-coop is the belief that our co-operative structure allows us to best serve the interests of users, partners, and the community as a whole—the “we” in a broader sense. By putting purpose before profit, we can focus on providing the best tools for making historical data accessible and maintaining a strong, sustainable business model that enables everyone to contribute to—and benefit from—the value chain. We keep as much of the service as possible available free of charge, through free subscriptions and scholarships for students, teachers and NGOs. Where we do charge, every cent we make is re-invested in the maintenance and further development of the platform. Our business principle is that everyone puts their data together to build large, powerful recognition models, while being able to train their own specialised models, and to use both to get the most out of their historical documents. You take the conscious decision to upload your data for your own and the benefit of others. Your data aren’t harvested from your phone, TV or computer without your knowledge or consent. You can train AI models for exactly your materials—and for more than a handful of languages. Everyone can train the AI to recognise exactly their materials in exactly their language. You don’t have to live with the models and results some company decides to give you. And the result speaks for itself: the training data that have been put together are, as far as we know, the largest collection of this kind in the world, covering hundreds of years of documents created by tens of thousands of authors and now carefully transcribed by historians, archivists, and enthusiasts.

We have been building something great together and have achieved the best text recognition quality for historical material in the world. And, if you join the co-operative as a member, on top of just using Transkribus, you are a co-owner and have access to privileged business information. You can make your voice heard by voting on decisions and electing the board of directors. We want everyone to have a say in how at least this instance of artificial intelligence is developed and shaped.

We are here to unlock our written past, together.



The Members of the read-coop Board on behalf of the cooperative


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