Optical character recognition seemed like a great idea when it was first invented in the 1970s. If you had an old book which you wanted to reformat OCR gave you the opportunity to use a computer to scan it so as to get you simply from A to B. Unfortunately it was never as simple as this might sound: OCR came with a guaranteed error rate, so what you’d get was only a step on the way to a reset book: an error-filled digital file. Next you’d have to go through a proof-reading and correction cycle. When ebooks came along demand for “re-origination” of books exploded. With a book published before ebooks had been thought of there was no digital file in existence which could be adapted to create the ebook, so you had to scramble to get one made. OCR should have held out an attractive methodology for creating such a digital file. However, in the end people figured out that it was more accurate, quicker, thus cheaper to have humans (often in the Philippines) re-key the book. Humans are much better than computers at recognizing that that smudge is a Capital “S”, not a “b” or an “o” or whatever the computer might decide it was. Errors like this one are pretty obvious, but others are less predictable: would OCR stutter over that “w” in the previous entry? As so often in the computer world we discovered that garbage in really did mean garbage out.

Now, it could be argued that better inputs will result in better outputs, and to the extent that you might argue that a QR code was being processed by a sort of optical character recognition this is obviously true. Publishers, in the early days of ISBNs, before (and immediately after) barcodes and barcode readers had become available would typeset their ISBNs in OCR-A a typeface which was alleged to be infallibly readable. Who knows whether anyone could or did machine-read such ISBNs?

I’m betting that we printed them like that just because we were told to, and that nobody ever utilized the theoretical function. Barcodes quickly came along to make OCR-A redundant, although, belts and braces believers all, we kept on using both for years.