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Crowdsourcing Project Hopes to Make Short Work of Transcribing Bentham

Thousands of unpublished pages of Jeremy Bentham’s manuscripts are ready for transcription with a new crowdsourcing program from University College London’s Transcribe Bentham project. 

Researchers at UCL are counting on Bentham enthusiasts around the globe to help transcribe and digitize thousands of handwritten pages of the influential philosopher’s work. The university has about 40,000 untranscribed pages of Bentham in its collection. It photographed 4,500 pages for the initial phase of the project—accessible through the Transcribe Bentham Web site—and is calling on Bentham scholars, armchair philosophers, or almost anyone with an Internet connection to turn the handwritten prose into machine-readable type.

“This is a groundbreaking project—the first crowdsourcing transcription project—so we are unsure of what to expect,” said Valerie Wallace, a research associate on the project. Since the wiki site became available on Wednesday, 89 people have started transcription on nearly a hundred manuscripts, Ms. Wallace said. The site has received more than a thousand hits from across Europe, Asia, and North America.

If all goes well, the Transcribe Bentham team hopes to upload 12,500 photographed pages by next year and eventually run through all of the university’s untranscribed pages. The crowdsourced work will be proofread by one of two research associates and uploaded to the project Web site as it is edited. The team hopes eventually to have a searchable database of the papers online to provide material for new printed Bentham collections and scholarly work on the philosopher. “We hope to keep this project going after our first year and continue with more photography,” Ms. Wallace said.

Bentham is considered the father of utilitarianism and mentor to an entire generation of philosophers, including John Stuart Mill. The Bentham papers—previously only available to visitors to the UCL archives—cover his views on politics, history, and law.

According to Stephen G. Engelmann, an associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has done extensive work with Bentham manuscripts, the transcription project could have a major impact on existing scholarship because so much of the prolific writer’s work remains untranscribed or was filtered through 19th-century editors. “I think it could be quite significant because the thing about Bentham is he just wrote so much and a lot of it is locked up in manuscripts,” he said. “It could really affect how we view Bentham.”

Although Mr. Engelmann said transcribing the documents—and Bentham’s handwriting—would be no easy task, he believes the project will improve access to obscure texts in an efficient and reliable way. “Anyone who is taking the time to work with it for a while would in time be better at actually doing the transcription than any number of scholars, myself included,” he said. “It’s different from the additional work needed to produce authoritative and accessible text for a printed volume.”

The university has a total of  60,000 pages of Bentham manuscripts—not to mention the philosopher’s mummified corpse. The Transcribe Bentham project is being spearheaded by the Bentham Project at the UCL Faculty of Laws in collaboration with the university’s Centre for Digital Humanities. The University of London Computer Centre designed customized wiki software for the project.

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