Major award for Transcribe Bentham crowdsourcing scheme

27 May 2011

Bentham manuscript

Transcribe Bentham, a pioneering ‘crowdsourcing’ scheme that involves members of the public in transcribing papers from the vast collection of philosopher Jeremy Bentham, has received the Award of Distinction from the Prix Ars Electronica, the world’s foremost digital arts competition, it was announced today.

Over a thousand volunteers have worked on the vast Bentham collection held at UCL since Transcribe Bentham was launched in 2010. In many cases the volunteers are the first to have read the papers since Bentham wrote them, and through their efforts over 1,300 manuscripts, covering issues as varied as crime and punishment, animal cruelty, economics, drunkenness, and the Panopticon prison, have been transcribed and are now available to scholars and the wider public.

Transcribe Bentham volunteers are from all walks of life, and include students, academics, civil servants, engineers, librarians, retirees, as well as those working in publishing and the arts. Volunteers are asked to transcribe the manuscripts through a specially-created website built from open-source software, and encode their transcriptions using a bespoke transcription tool which adds the relevant tags at the click of a button.

“There are no special skills required to become involved in the project,” said Dr Tim Causer, Research Associate at the Bentham Project. “The only qualification is an internet connection. What is so exciting about this is that quite often the transcribers are the first people to have read the manuscripts since Bentham wrote them. They are, in a very real sense, actively assisting in the production of humanities research. Transcribe Bentham does not just intend to break down barriers between academia and the wider community, but to bring the community into academia on a collaborative basis.

“We provide detailed instructions on palaeography and text encoding, along with instructional videos. In evaluating the project, it was clear that users got a great deal out of participating: they enjoy being part of a task achieving something for the greater good and solving the puzzle of deciphering Bentham’s handwriting.

“Transcribe Bentham is also about preserving the collection and making it available to the widest possible audience. The transcripts produced are uploaded to UCL Library’s digital Bentham Collection, where manuscript images can be viewed alongside the relevant transcript. By this process, we and the volunteers are creating a fully-searchable database of Bentham’s thought, which will be a tremendous resource for researchers and students.”

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is a figure of outstanding historical importance and contemporary significance; he 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 schemes for the Panopticon prison. Bentham was a prodigious writer, and it is estimated that there are around 176 boxes, consisting of 60,000 folios, of material held in UCL Special Collections. The Bentham Project’s aim is to produce the new authoritative edition of The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, twenty-eight volumes of which have been published, with two in press, and a dozen more at an advanced stage of preparation.

“Fundamental to creating the coherent texts in each volume are the Bentham manuscripts,” added Dr Valerie Wallace, Research Associate at the Bentham Project. “During the past fifty years, around 20,000 folios have been transcribed by Bentham Project staff, and despite the Bentham Papers being such a valuable source, there is so much we have yet to discover about Bentham’s ideas. Producing a volume of the Collected Works can take up to three years, and transcribing all of the relevant manuscripts is extremely time-consuming.”

One of the most active volunteers, with nearly 600 manuscripts transcribed, is Diane Folan, an economics postgraduate from the University of West England. She said: “For me, the motivation for getting involved in the project really was the desire to help the editors get the forthcoming Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham published. Having spent some 50 years trying to get Bentham’s manuscripts transcribed, helping them achieve this really was the main motivation behind my involvement. I’ve very much enjoyed being part of the project, helping to decipher Bentham’s writing, and learning more about his life and work. For anyone with the remotest desire to take part in the project, I would definitely encourage them to have a go.”

Crowdsourcing – or the outsourcing of certain tasks to the public – is increasingly popular, and its potential can be seen in the success of projects such as Galaxy Zoo, Digitised Proofreaders, or the National Library of Australia’s digitised newspapers. Transcribe Bentham was launched under the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Digital Equipment and Database Enhancement for Impact scheme, which provided funding for a period of twelve months. The project team are now investigating further avenues of funding in order to keep Transcribe Bentham functioning at full capacity in the long-term. 

Image: A page from an original manuscript by Jeremy Bentham

Media contact: Dominique Fourniol


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