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Project update – spreading the word about Transcribe Bentham

By Louise Seaward, on 4 August 2017

Over the past year, the pages of my diary have become rather full and my microphone technique has improved considerably.  I’ve been trying to organise all sorts of new speaking engagements to spread the word about Transcribe Bentham and encourage new people to volunteer with us.

The Bentham Project is no stranger to this kind of public engagement.  We give regular public talks and deal with enquiries about Bentham from interested individuals across the globe.  You can even watch a video about some of our past ‘Adventures in Public Engagement’, when we held a series of public events in 2011.

Transcribe Bentham has now been up-and-running for close to seven years.  With our role in the READ project, we are working on new technological innovations that should make the Transcription Desk more user-friendly, thereby making it easier for unexperienced transcribers to take part in our initiative.  In the meantime, we have a functioning transcription platform, a strong web and social media presence and lots of information to guide new volunteers who might like to take up an intriguing new hobby.  And we are always looking for new participants!

Transcribing Bentham is by no means a simple task.  Volunteers have to decode Bentham’s often difficult handwriting and also get to grips with the rules of TEI mark-up in order to mark features of the manuscripts like additions, deletions and marginal notes.  Our experience has shown that only a small number of people have the inclination and determination to take part.  But how to find these people?

When Transcribe Bentham was launched in 2010, the team envisaged that it could be a good opportunity for school students who were learning about philosophy and history.  Our resources for schools are still available and we continue to give regular talks on Bentham to school groups from Britain and beyond.  But it can be difficult for teachers to plan activities that go beyond the core school curriculum.  And so it is adults who seem to be our most active transcribers.

With this in mind, I have set about organising various public talks to spread the word about the project.  These presentations are an excellent way to get in touch with interested and intelligent audiences and tell them a bit about Bentham’s fascinating philosophy.  I have found that public audiences are often interested in Bentham’s connection to the modern world, so I also try to show how his philosophical thinking can be applied to the current social and political climate.  In addition, these talks give me the chance to gather feedback on Transcribe Bentham – how far do its aims, workings and findings make sense to people outside of academia?

The University of the Third Age has proved to be a great resource for us and is always full of receptive listeners.  The U3A is an international education movement, which was started in France in the 1970s.  It is organised across local branches and its membership consists mainly of retired people who are in the ‘third age’ of life.  Members often hear external speakers but they also share their own knowledge and practical skills across numerous sub-groups.  And many of the local branches have a Philosophy group!  My most recent talk was at the London Region U3A Summer School which was held at the St Bride Foundation, a heritage centre for the Fleet Street print trade.   The theme of the Summer School was the centenary of the Russian Revolution so I was sure to include some details about Bentham’s remarkable trip to Russia in 1785!

St Bride Foundation

In addition to the U3A groups, I have also spoken at various local libraries and museums, as well as to the alumni group at UCL.  And I have more talks coming up at the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, at local branches of the Historical Association and hopefully at some Women’s Institute groups.

My audiences have ranged from around 10 to 100 people.  But it is difficult to say how far these talks have impacted upon our volunteer numbers.  Although many people register on our site and give transcribing a go, only a small number stick around and become active transcribers.  But these talks are nevertheless an important part of our mission to connect the public with the work of the Bentham Project.  It allows us to showcase the new discoveries made by our volunteers and demonstrate how this kind of collaboration can deepen historical and philosophical knowledge and change established working practices in academia.  And we are hopeful that even if an audience member feels that Transcribe Bentham is not for them, they might tell a friend!

If you have or know of an audience that might be interested to hear about Bentham and Transcribe Bentham, please feel free to contact me!