Happy fifth birthday, Transcribe Bentham!
By Tim Causer, on 7 September 2015
Today marks the fifth anniversary of Transcribe Bentham‘s being unleashed upon a unsuspecting public. (Where did that time go?) If, in September 2010, you had told the project team that five years later volunteers would have transcribed 13,696 manuscripts (and counting) I suspect we may not have believed you, given the challenge of reading and deciphering many of Bentham’s manuscripts. But the dedication and skill of volunteer transcribers has more than assuaged any fears we may have had: more and more material is being submitted as we speak, and we continue to be enormously impressed by the enthusiasm, care, and attention which volunteers put into every transcript.
To give you a sense of just how successful Transcribe Bentham has been, it is now entirely possible that all of Bentham’s manuscripts – hugely important as a historical and philosophical resource – could be fully transcribed and available in about 10 to 15 years. Had Transcribe Bentham never existed, then the best-case scenario for having everything transcribed wouldn’t be, at least, until 2081. Transcribers are helping to make a genuine contribution to research and scholarship.
The last five years have been extraordinarily busy. Around 60,000 manuscript pages have been digitised from the UCL and British Library Bentham Papers, and another 40,000 or so are required. We have been fortunate to receive a reasonable amount of media coverage, including a New York Times article which trebled our user-base overnight in December 2010. The project has even received a couple of awards, including a prestigious Award of Recognition in the 2011 Prix Ars Electronica, the world’s foremost digital arts competition, and a Bentham Cookbook, based on manuscripts transcribed by volunteers, has just been published. The project team have given numerous presentations about the work of Transcribe Bentham and its contributors, and have published a series of articles (with more to come, including a paper demonstrating how crowdsourced transcription is economically viable).
Transcribe Bentham is now well and truly embedded in the main work of the Bentham Project, namely its production of The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham. Volunteer transcripts are being used by Bentham Project researchers in editing volumes of the Collected Works, and they have made some significant discoveries, as my colleague Dr Michael Quinn’s recent posts on Bentham’s writings on political economy have shown. And in a circumstance which we would never have foreseen, data produced by volunteer transcribers has been used as ‘ground truth’ for the training of Handwritten Text Recognition models in the tranScriptorium project, and Transcribe Bentham will act as a demonstrator for bringing this technology to users in the forthcoming READ (Retrieval and Enrichment of Archival Documents) initiative. Perhaps most importantly, Transcribe Bentham has demonstrated the feasibility and the desirability of opening up humanities research for wider participation; Bentham and Bentham studies have never had a higher profile, and this is thanks in part to Transcribe Bentham.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has worked on Transcribe Bentham during the last five years: from the Bentham Project, Professor Philip Schofield, Dr Valerie Wallace, Dr Justin Tonra, Dr Kris Grint, and Anna-Maria Sichani (plus Phillippa Waller, Tom Ue, Hazel Wilkinson, and Kalliopi Kontiza); from UCL’s Centre for Digital Humanities, Professor Melissa Terras; from UCL Library Services, Martin Moyle and Lesley Pitman; from UCL Creative Media Services, Tony Slade, Raheel Nabi, Miguel Faleiro Rodrigues, and Alejandro Salinas Lopex; and from the University of London Computer Centre, Richard Davis, Rory McNicholl, José Martin, and Ben Parish; and for designing the fantastic Transcribe Bentham branding, Dr Rudolf Ammann.
We are also extremely grateful to support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and to UCL for supporting Transcribe Bentham.
But the people who really deserve the most thanks, and who truly deserve to be celebrated, are Transcribe Bentham‘s volunteers (you can find a list of everyone who has contributed in our ‘Hall of Fame’). Whether you have transcribed a page or more than a thousand pages, thank you so much. The project would genuinely be nothing without your patience, your skill, your support, your dedication, and your care for the material. We are more grateful than we can ever say.
Here’s to the next five years (and beyond)!