Transcribe Bentham’s second anniversary

By Tim Causer, on 14 September 2012

On 7 September 2010, Transcribe Bentham was officially launched upon an unsuspecting public, with the aim of recruiting volunteers from around the world, whatever their background, to help transcribe the unpublished manuscripts of Jeremy Bentham. Our initial progress was steady, if not necessarily spectacular: by the end of our testing period on 8 March 2011 (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council), 1,009 manuscripts had been transcribed or partially transcribed, of which 569 (56%) were complete. The end of April 2011 also saw the cessation of our twelve-month AHRC grant, and the project’s future did not look particularly promising.

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article (citing a paper by TB staff published in Literary and Linguistic Computing earlier this year), notes our finding that had the two full-time members of staff employed for Transcribe Bentham instead been devoted to transcription alone for twelve months, then they could have produced around two and-a-half times as many transcripts as volunteers would have done in the same period. This finding is certainly true of the state of play at the end of the testing period, but due to the vagaries of academic publishing schedules, it by no means represents what TB and its volunteers have done since, nor the current state of progress. After the testing period ended, Transcribe Bentham won a major international award, its ‘Transcription Desk’ software (developed by the University of London Computer Centre) was released on an open source basis for others to reuse and customise, and (we hope) the project has helped to promote scholarly crowdsourcing and Bentham studies over the past two years.

Most impressive of all, however, has been the sheer volume of work carried out by (an admittedly small core of) TB volunteers, despite the project being run on minimal funding for the past eighteen months, and having rather less staff time devoted to it than is ideal. As 7 September 2012, 4,255 manuscripts have been transcribed or partially transcribed. 4,033 (94%) of these transcripts are now complete. This means that they are of the required standard for uploading to UCL’s digital repository, and for use, ultimately, in the production of future volumes of The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham.

This means that volunteer transcribers have achieved yet another landmark, having completed over 4,000 transcripts (or over 2.1 million words, plus extensive XML markup). There are often worries about the quality of the products of crowdsourced tasks, but we are delighted to report that despite having to deal with Bentham’s handwriting, syntax, style, and occasional habit of almost obliterating a page with deletions, marginalia and interlineal additions, the work of transcribers is of an extremely high standard. The amount of effort, care and attention that TB volunteers put in to ensure that their work is accurate is second to none. They are also transcribing at a faster rate than one full-time member of staff could manage if she or he were devoted solely to transcribing; an unlikely scenario, given our multifarious duties! We are very lucky that they have chosen to participate, and that they continue to do so.

So, where next for the intiative? Transcribe Bentham will at the heart of the Consolidated Bentham Papers Repository, a project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation which begins officially on 1 October, and is funded for two years. This will see much of the UCL Bentham Papers digitised and made available for transcription and research, as well as all of the Bentham material held by our new partner institution, the British Library. Significant improvements will be made to the transcription interface to make the process more straightforward for volunteers, and we will be consulting with transcribers as to what kind of improvements they would find useful (this software will, again, be released on an open source basis for other projects to utilise). We hope this new interface will prove to be more attractive to current and potential volunteers, and further increase the rate of transcription. We have also received some further exciting news, and look forward to talking about that in the coming months.

As ever, we end by thanking our volunteers as without them, there would be no Transcribe Bentham. We remain hugely grateful for their time and efforts, and think that the work they do should be celebrated. You can keep up to date with the progress of Transcribe Bentham at the project’s blog, and register to participate at the Transcription Desk.