CIRCA:The Bentham Project


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The Bentham Project began at the University College of London in 1958 with the intent of publishing an exhaustive scholarly edition of philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s writings. Bentham was prolific; he authoured over 70 volumes on the topics of morality, religion, crime and punishment, law, economics, and other related subjects.

Bentham’s original manuscripts, about 72,500 folios total, are challenging to transcribe. His writing is hurried and sometimes incomprehensible, there are numerous scribbles, revisions, and crossed out words, and the folio paper itself is rather large. Almost 20,000 folios had been transcribed by hand between the year of the project’s inception (1958) and 2010.

It was obvious that a new method for the transcription of the manuscripts was required if the project was ever to be finished. This led to the introduction of the Transcribe Bentham Project in September 2010.

Transcribe Bentham

The Transcribe Bentham project received a one-year grant with the expectation that the laborious work of transcription be completed voluntarily by interested members of the online community (crowdsourcing). The grant itself was used for the creation of high quality digital images of the folios, the staffing of two full-time project coordinators, setting up the web interface, and various other administrative costs.

The web interface used for Transcribe Bentham is a customised MediaWiki that hosts the scanned manuscripts, the transcription tool (a WYSIWYG type text editor), project documentation, a discussion forum, and a rudimentary social media platform that lets members and project organizers communicate.

The manuscripts were photographed at a high resolution that allowed for maximum magnification. The quality of the scanned images was vital, due to the difficult nature of deciphering the material.

A great deal of attention was payed to the encoding process. Users can select a portion of text that needs encoding (something like an unintelligible word or addition), and press the appropriate button on the toolbar. The text is automatically tagged with TEI compliant XML, preventing the user having to worry if a document ends up being well-formed. Although the practice of encoding is not required by the transcriber, it adds a valuable layer of depth to the final document and allows for searchability. It likely also provides a sense of completion for the user, especially when words are crossed out or unintelligible.

When a transcript is deemed complete by the transcription desk, it is uploaded to the UCL’s digital collection, where it can be viewed, along with the original image of the document, by anyone. The authours propose that this digitization is not only convienent for scholars, but essential for the long-term preservation of the work. The TEI compliant coding and high-quality scanning have transformed the project into an archive.

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