The Bentham Papers Transcription Initiative (Transcribe Bentham) is a pioneering and award-winning crowdsourced manuscript transcription project. It is administered and run by UCL's Bentham Project, in collaboration with UCL Library Services, UCL Learning and Media Services, UCL's Department of Information Studies and Centre for Digital Humanities, the University of London Computer Centre, and the online community.
The Bentham Project, founded in 1958, is producing the new scholarly edition of The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham. Bentham (1748-1832) is one of the world's great thinkers, whose thought has had a profound historical impact and is still of major contemporary significance. He is perhaps best known as the founder of the modern doctrine of utilitarianism—the doctrine that the right and proper end of all action is the promotion of the greatest happiness. His writings are important in the fields of economics and jurisprudence, and he was an influential critic of the theory of natural rights. He developed a theory of punishment and reward, advocated female suffrage and an international court of arbitration to ensure peace. He is also well-known for his panopticon prison scheme, which was given a central place in Michel Foucault's interpretation of the modern state.
There is global interest in Bentham's writings, which are studied by, amongst others, philosophers, historians, political theorists, lawyers, and economists, as well as among teachers and students. Bentham's dressed skeleton — the Auto-Icon — preserved after his death according to his wishes, sits on public display at UCL, and a virtual version is available.
Yet, despite Bentham's importance, our knowledge of his thought is incomplete. The new edition of the Collected Works will replace the inadequate edition published between 1838 and 1843 by Bentham's literary executor and disciple, John Bowring; the Bowring edition is poorly edited, omits many unpublished writings, and contains translations and recensions by others which may not be fully representative of Bentham's thought. It is only during the last two years, for example, that the Bentham Project staff have begun to recover Bentham's thinking on religion and sexual morality. Furthermore, the manuscripts relating to Bentham's panopticon still require transcription, as do large amounts of important material on civil, penal, constitutional, and international law, on economics, and on legal and political philosophy. In short, while Bentham's manuscripts comprise material of exceptional importance for a wide range of disciplines, large parts of the collection remain unknown and unstudied.
Twenty-nine of a projected seventy volumes of the new edition have thus far been published. Volumes in the new edition are, to a large extent, based upon edited transcripts of Bentham's unpublished manuscripts, of which there are around 60,000 folios housed in UCL Library's Special Collections, and a further 12,500 held by the British Library. Since the foundation of the Bentham Project, some 20,000 folios have been transcribed by researchers; an enormous amount of transcription thus remains to be done in order to fully explore the collection.
Aims and Objectives
Transcribe Bentham has two major aims and objectives:
1. Contributing to the production of The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham
2. Increasing access to, and public engagement with, the Bentham Papers
In the first instance, volunteer-produced transcripts give Bentham Project editors a head-start: rather than transcribing from scratch they will have working transcripts, thus saving a great deal of time and money. Each submission will feed directly into preparation of the scholarly work, which is an exciting prospect; instead of being merely the passive receivers of the fruits of humanities research, volunteers will have a part in its active creation, and be acknowledged for their efforts in each volume.
In the second and more important instance, Transcribe Bentham is public engagement on an extensive scale, and its results will benefit those far beyond the Bentham Project. Volunteer-produced transcripts will be uploaded to UCL's digital repository and displayed alongside the manuscript images, where the entire collection will be searchable. Their efforts are thus integral in helping to produce a new resource of huge historical and philosophical importance. Excitingly, volunteers are often the first to have read the manuscripts since Bentham wrote them, and can potentially make important new discoveries.
Since the launch of Transcribe Bentham on 8 September 2010, over 1,500 users have registered an account. Of these, 302 have transcribed material, and as of 16 March 2012, 3,057 complex manuscripts have been transcribed, of which 92% were judged to be of the required standard for uploading to the digital repository. This is an astonishing amount of work, and works out at an estimated 1.5 million words, plus extensive TEI XML mark-up. Transcribe Bentham volunteers are now transcribing faster than a full-time member of staff
The project team have analysed the demographic characteristics and motivations for participation of the volunteer base (see accompanying documentation), and promoted both the project and crowdsourced transcription generally; one of its most important findings is that it is feasible to crowdsource complex manuscripts, and that if it is successful with Bentham's papers, then it can be done with anything. Transcribe Bentham has featured in mass-media articles (Sunday Times, The New York Times), radio broadcasts (Deutsche Welle World, ORF1), and in many blog posts.
The international impact of Transcribe Bentham has been recognised in its shortlisting for the 2011 Digital Heritage Award alongside other important crowdsourcing initiatives, and its receipt of a prestigious Award of Distinction in the ‘Digital Communities’ category of the Prix Ars Electronica
Further impact may be felt if and when other projects adopt the Transcribe Bentham transcription tool, the code for which is available on an open source basis for reuse and customisation. In its report, the Prix Ars Electronica jury noted that the tool has 'the potential to become a standard tool for scholarly crowdsourcing projects'. A great deal of money on software development could be saved in implementing the tool, as the Public Record Office of Victoria has done for its transcription pilot.