Announcing the Bentham Papers Transcription Initiative

Jeremy Bentham's body, preserved at UCL

Jeremy Bentham’s body, preserved and on display at UCL.

We at UCL are all terribly proud of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)- whose body, or “Auto-icon” is on display in the South Cloisters. It is widely told that he was the founder of UCL – which isnt true, although he did influence those who did found our University. I dont think I’ll ever get bored in saying “Good morning!” to him every day as I walk past. You’ll be pleased to know his case gets locked up tight every evening to allow him some rest.

He was a prolific writer, scholar, jurist, philosopher, and social scientist. A.J.P. Taylor described him as `the most formidable reasoner who ever applied his gifts to the practical questions of administration and politics�. Since the 1950s, The Bentham Project has been working towards the production of a new scholarly edition of his works and correspondence, although they’ve only dented the surface of the 60,000 pages of writing he produced which remain in UCL’s special collections.

The Bentham Project did receive some AHRC money a few years ago to start digitising the material, although it was time for a rethink. Enter the Arts and Humanities Research Council�s highly competitive Digital Equipment and Database Enhancement for Impact (DEDEFI) scheme.

I’ve been asked to join the project in an advisory role. It became clear to me very quickly that in a one year project there was never going to be enough time for two (maximum, under the funding) research assistants to digitise and transcribe tens of thousands of pages of manuscript material. So what, I thought, if we change the focus of the transcription initiative?

The Guardian Newspaper had run a very successful investigation into the UK MP’s expense scandal in 2009, using an online crowdsourcing application to let their readership help sort though the 450,000 documents that needed closer study. Would it be possible, I thought, to develop a similar tool for cultural heritage documents? Can we persuade the wider historical community to contribute to the transcription effort?

I am pleased to say that UCL Laws, in conjunction with UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, UCL Department of Information Studies, and UCL Library Services, can announce the launch of the Bentham Papers Transcription Initiative, which has secured �260,000 funding from the AHRC DEDEFI scheme.

The Bentham Papers Transcription Initiative is a highly innovative and novel attempt to aid in the transcription of Bentham�s work. A digitisation project will provide high quality scans of the papers, whilst an online transcription tool will be developed which will allow volunteers to contribute to the transcription effort: providing a �crowdsourcing� tool which will be used to manage contributions from the wider audience interested in Bentham�s work, including school students, and amateur historians. It will be the job of the research assistants to manage interaction with the wider historical community, and monitor the quality of the transcriptions which are added to the database.

The use of such a tool for the transcription of cultural and heritage material is novel (although do shout if you know anyone else planning something similar), and UCL�s CIBER group will monitor the use of the online tool, providing an in-depth study of how such a crowdsourcing application was used during the year- long project.

Work on the project begins on March 1st 2010, and the project shall be shortly hiring for two research assistants. The online tool will be launched mid-summer 2010, when you can contribute to transcribing the works of Jeremy Bentham yourself!

Did I mention I was super excited about this? Grin.

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