Transcribe Bentham project reaches 10,000th transcription

24 July 2014

Bentham manuscript

An experiment in ‘scholarly crowdsourcing’, which engages the public in the online transcription of papers written by the celebrated philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), has published its 10,000th transcription this week. 

This is a significant milestone for the award-winning Transcribe Bentham project, which has been running since 2010. The major online initiative to transcribe the manuscripts of Jeremy Bentham housed in the UCL archives asks volunteers to assist academics in researching Bentham’s ideas, by transcribing the notoriously bad handwriting in his manuscripts.

Bentham, considered the 'spiritual founder' of UCL, was the founder of the modern doctrine of utilitarianism, a seminal figure in legal philosophy, a major theorist of representative democracy, and the originator of contemporary notions of surveillance through his panopticon prison scheme. 

The manuscripts in UCL Library's Special Collections, given to UCL after his death, cover the period of Bentham’s life and consist of drafts and notes for published and several substantial unpublished works, correspondence to and from Bentham, and other ephemera. 

A few years ago, it was thought that the collection would never be transcribed in its entirety due to the huge nature of the task - but it now looks like a distinct possibility.

Professor Philip Schofield

The Transcribe Bentham project digitises and makes available digital images of Bentham’s unpublished manuscripts through a platform known as the 'Transcription Desk', where volunteers can access and transcribe the material to help the work of UCL’s Bentham Project, and further improve access to and search ability of the collection. The work will contribute to the production of the new edition of The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, and helps create a vast digital repository of Bentham’s writings.

Bentham auto-icon

Professor Philip Schofield, Director of the Bentham Project (UCL Laws), said: "Reaching our 10,000th volunteer-produced transcription is a very considerable achievement. The total collection of Bentham manuscripts stands at an estimated 100,000. A few years ago, it was thought that the collection would never be transcribed in its entirety due to the huge nature of the task - but it now looks like a distinct possibility. 

"The success of Transcribe Bentham is owed fundamentally to our volunteers. Without them, the project would be nothing and we value every contribution - no matter how small. The team are all hugely grateful to the transcribers for their efforts, and for so generously giving their time to spend with this philosophically and historically important collection of manuscripts.​"

Dr Tim Causer, UCL Bentham Project, added: "When Transcribe Bentham was launched, we had little idea of just how successful the initiative was going to be. It was something of an experiment, and a shot in the dark: would anyone really want to transcribe and encode Bentham’s manuscripts when they are often so infuriatingly complex, both in terms of content and composition?

"Since January of this year, we have had more visitors and contributions than ever and by late March volunteers had worked on an impressive 7,369 transcripts. Since then, the transcription rate has exploded and we have received what is usually a year’s worth of transcription in four months, with volunteers working on an average of 157 transcripts per week. Transcribing Bentham is a far from easy task, but the care and attention taken by transcribers never ceases to impress us: 92% of these 10,000 transcripts have been approved after checking.​"

The team believe the major reason for the increased activity since March is down to the release of the first batch of digitised material from the British Library’s collection of Bentham papers, which bring out a more personal side of Bentham. They include letters between various members of the Bentham family, including love letters between Jeremy’s parents, Jeremiah and Alicia, and missives from his brother Samuel, at this point residing in Russia. 

They would like to encourage all those who have an interest in Bentham or those with an interest in  history, politics, law, philosophy and economics, fields to which Bentham made significant contributions, to visit the site. 

Those with an enthusiasm for palaeography, transcription and manuscript studies will be interested in Bentham’s handwriting, while those involved in digital humanities, education and heritage learning will find the site intriguing. Undergraduates and school pupils studying Bentham’s ideas are particularly encouraged to use the site to enhance their learning experience.

Transcribe Bentham is co-ordinated by the Bentham Project in UCL Laws in collaboration with the British Library, the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, UCL Creative Media Services, UCL Library Services and the University of London Computer Centre. The project is currently funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and was established under funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Links

Images

  • A page from an original manuscript by Jeremy Bentham
  • Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon (Credit: UCL Creative Media Services)

Media contact

Ruth Howells

Tel: +44 (0)20 3108 3845

Email: ruth.howells [at] ucl.ac.uk