Take a walk through University College London, and you may stumble across a wooden display cabinet containing a human skeleton with a wax head, wearing period dress. These are the remains of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), Enlightenment philosopher and spiritual founder of UCL. And thanks to an online crowdsourcing initiative called Transcribe Bentham, his work has taken on a new lease of life.
UCL has been transcribing Bentham’s papers since 1959, but with a vast archive of 60,000 manuscript folios, the tricky task of deciphering handwritten documents has made progress incredibly slow. In October 2010, the scholars behind the Bentham Project came up with the perfect solution; they put digitised scans of the manuscripts online, and invited members of the public to transcribe them.
Since the initiative began, 5,146 manuscripts have been fully or part-transcribed, amounting to nearly 2.6 million words. Thanks to the efforts of 2,367 registered users based in 118 countries, the project is racing through an average of 40 manuscripts per week (about 20,000 words). At one point it hit a peak of 87 transcripts in one week in September 2012.
So why all the interest in Bentham? Believe it or not, there’s a great deal of value in wading through the scribblings of an old man long-dead. Amongst other things, he was a keen social reformer; an animal rights activist, and the architect of a new type of prison – the Panopticon. The concept of the design is that a single prison warder would be able to observe every single inmate of the prison without them being able to tell whether or not they were being watched.
Bentham was also the founder of a political theory called Utilitarianism, which roughly translates into “the greatest good of the greatest number”. It was a purely rational approach to contending with the needs of society, and one that Charles Dickens brutally satirised in the novel Hard Times.
Given that many of these documents are being read for the first time since Bentham put pen to paper, some interesting discoveries have been made. Bentham’s stance on animal rights has been explored in greater detail, for example. Elsewhere, a tranche of cookery recipes have been found, which enthusiasts have tested by following them at home. Based on early tastings, it transpires that Bentham was a terrible cook.
All of these gains are thanks to a community of Benthamites, each with varying levels of engagement and activity. Some of them are casual users who are merely curious about how the process works, whilst others are super-users doing the bulk of the transcription. Using a blog and forum, they share information and spur each other on to continue their noble efforts, panning for philosophical gold.
“Though it's only a fairly small group of volunteers who are currently taking part,” says Tim Causer, Research Associate at the Bentham Project, “they have proved remarkably capable in reading and transcribing Bentham's handwriting.”
The genesis of Transcribe Bentham was in 2009, when the Co-Director of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities, Melissa Terras, was asked by the head of the Bentham Project, Professor Philip Schofield, for advice on procuring funding to digitise the 60,000 folios. “The days for getting funding for pure ‘scan and dump’ digitisation projects are over,” explains Terras, “and I wondered if we could do something more interesting.”
Around the same time, the MPs expenses scandal had broken in the UK, and Terras noticed something interesting: “The Guardian newspaper had built a platform to allow their readers to sift through the thousands of pages of MP's receipts and I wondered -- could we do the same? Could we ask people to read these manuscripts?”
The answer is a definite “yes.” Transcribe Bentham has been a certifiable success, and continues to grow in scale. With funding from the Mellon Foundation, the project has now expanded to encompass the British Library’s collection of 12,500 manuscript folios by Bentham. The man was certainly prolific. There are also plans to roll out improvements to the interface of the open-source transcription software.
Legend has it that Bentham’s ghost still roams the halls at UCL. Perhaps he’s searching for his mummified head, which used to be on display but was the target of so many student pranks that the university had to put it away for safe-keeping. He can take comfort in knowing that, if he ever chooses to give up the spiritual plane, there’s a place waiting for him in the digital ether.
Follow Transcribe Bentham on Twitter.
Image Credit: Bloomsbury Bytes