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Project Update – Bentham Papers now completely digitised!

By Louise Seaward, on 25 May 2018

A monumental day has finally dawned – the digitisation of Bentham’s papers is now complete!

The digitisation of Bentham’s writings has always been a central element of the Transcribe Bentham initiative, in order to make his philosophy more accessible to researchers and members of the public.  We have achieved something tremendous – thousands upon thousands of images of Bentham’s manuscripts are now available in electronic form.

We owe special thanks to UCL Digital Media Services (Tony Slade and Raheel Nabi especially), UCL Library Special Collections (Mandy Wise, Dan Mitchell and the rest of their team) and The British Library (Sandra Tuppen, Neil Mcowlen and their team) for taking care of the digitisation.  I would also like to thank present and past staff of Transcribe Bentham for the work that they have done to support the digitisation.

We now have digital images from the 173 boxes of Bentham Papers held in Special Collections at UCL, which include Bentham’s thoughts on his Constitutional Code, the Panopticon prison and the Church of England amongst other subjects.   A further 20 boxes of material from The British Library have also been digitised, some of which comprise letters to and from Bentham and his family.  In total, we now have a whopping collection of over 95,000 digitised images (around 80,000 from UCL and 15,000 from The British Library).  These images are linked to detailed metadata prepared by Bentham Project researchers, some of which is available online via the Bentham Papers Database.

Lots of this material is already available online via our Transcription Desk and the digital repository of UCL Library.  Over the coming months, the rest of the digitised papers will be uploaded to the websites of UCL and The British Library.

Digitisation proved to be a long process.  We prepared for the launch of Transcribe Bentham in 2010 by digitising a few boxes from the UCL collection and have continued to steadily digitise material over the past seven years.  In 2012 we received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to digitise Bentham manuscripts held in The British Library.  Although there remain a handful of Bentham folios held in other archives around the world, we have now digitally united the two largest collections of Bentham material for the first time.

Digitisation was also labour-intensive.  It involved hours spent by UCL Digital Media Services in a darkened basement sifting through delicate manuscripts, taking images, refining their quality and matching them to metadata records.  We frequently had to transport boxes of Bentham’s papers across the UCL campus, sometimes in taxis but more often by hand, dragging a loaded trolley across Gower Street.  Intensive manual checks of long lists of images were also necessary to ensure (as far as possible!) that all folios had been digitised.

These images are an enviable resource for scholarship and public engagement, making it possible for anyone around the world to read Bentham’s ideas in their original form.  Transcriptions provided by volunteers on Transcribe Bentham are helping to enhance the accessibility of these papers, meaning that they can be explored more easily.  Digitisation speeds up the Bentham Project’s work on the scholarly edition of Bentham’s writings.  Researchers at the project can now easily consult digital images on their computer when they wish to transcribe a page or double-check the spelling of a difficult word.  Excitingly, our images and transcripts represent a dataset that can also be exploited with new digital techniques.  We are already experimenting with training Handwritten Text Recognition technology to process Bentham’s handwriting as part of the READ project and there are intriguing possibilities for text mining, mapping and network analysis ready for future scholars.

We are planning to mark this digital milestone with a celebratory event at UCL on 6 June for everyone who has been involved with or supported the initiative.  Photos coming soon on the blog!

If you have any questions about the digitisation or would like to view images that have not yet been put online, feel free to contact us.

Funding for the digitisation was provided by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, UCL Digital Media Services and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.  The Bentham Project is also recognised as a British Academy Research Project.