+ Public Being Recruited for Scholarly Work

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University College London has been working on the Bentham Project since the 1960s.  Twenty-seven of an expected 70 or so volumes have been transcribed and published.

But recently, the scholars have been enlisting ordinary folks in their massive task of transcribing Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s papers.  They are turning to “crowd-sourcing.”

According Patricia Cohen’s article in the New York Times, starting last fall the editors have invited anyone — perhaps including you — to take on the job of transcribing the often difficult to decipher handwritten documents.   

Some 40,000 unpublished manuscripts from University College’s collection have been scanned and put online.  In the five months since the Wikipedia-style experiment began, 350 registered users have produced 435 manuscripts.

The transcripts are reviewed and corrected by editors and will eventually be used for printed editions of the collected works of Jeremy Bentham.

This is an undertaking that Bentham himself would no doubt appreciate.  His utilitarian philosophy promoted “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

The experiment is part of the way technology is revolutionizing the study of the humanities.  It has the potential to cut years — even decades — from the transcription process, as well as making available to the public as well as scholars miles of documents that are either off limits, too difficult to read or unsearchable.

Says Sharon Leon, a historian at George Mason University, the potential of crowd-sourcing’ is “fairly astonishing.”  She recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to design a free digital tool — a plug-in — that any archive or library could use to open transcription to the public. 

She and her collaborators are working with 55,000 unpublished documents from the early US War Department.  These documents have been collected, copied and reconstructed in the last dozen year to replace those largely destroyed in 1800 when a fire swept through the War Department offices.

These manuscripts, which were written from 1784 to 1800, are in effect a national archive.  

The early War Department handled not only military matters but also diplomacy, internal security, Indian affairs, and the country’s only social welfare program — for veterans.  It accounted for 7 of every 10 dollars spent by the federal government.

Leon says she expects the project will primarily attract scholars, students, history enthusiasts and genealogists, some of whom may already have transcribed portions of these documents in their research already.

A librarian at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, Karen Mason, is one of the Bentham volunteers.  She describes her participation as

a service to the scholarly community.  I’m no Bentham scholar, but I am interested in history, so it’s interesting to look at the addenda and deletions in the manuscripts and generally follow the thought processes of a man living in 18th-century England.  I usually take about 15 to 20 minutes of my lunch hour if the weather is bad or if I don’t feel like going out.

(For those of you who may not be aware, the preserved corpse of Bentham is on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the college.)

Digital humanities, however, have become a source of tension between experts and amateurs.

Max J Evans, former executive director of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, says he has long campaigned for using digital technology, such as putting originals online as a way of widening access.  He sees this as a way to speed the general availability of the founding fathers’ papers, and keeping them from being held up in these scholarly editing offices for years and years.  He feels they should  not be available only to a select group of scholars.

Indeed, the Library of Congress has done this with some of the founders’ papers.

But Evans says document editors generally tend to be very resistant.

According to Daniel Stowell, director and editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, says there are practical obstacles. 

His office experimented with the hiring of non-academic transcribers and found they produced so many errors and gaps in the papers that “we were spending more time and money correcting them as creating them from scratch.”

Tens of thousands of unpublished and rarely seen documents written by or to Lincoln were digitally scanned for the project for his bicentennial celebration in 2009.  The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois created a prototype for crowd-sourced transcription.

It was ultimately abandoned.  Stowell says he expects the rest of Lincoln’s papers to be transcribed and posted in 10 to 15 years. 

Whether newer endeavors like Project Bentham or the War Department papers will end up saving time, he offers, “I’m skeptical.”

Bentham’s sloping, antique script will be difficult for the pajama-wearing amateur to decipher.  In his later years, Bentham’s handwriting deteriorated.  In addition, he occasionally wrote in between the lines of a previous letter.

Bentham participants are given a long list of guidelines instructing them on how to enter codes for deletions, additions, marginal notes, headings and other textual quirks.  This makes for slow-going work.

Users can choose a manuscript to work on by subject (for example, “Box 73 and Box 96 contain interesting manuscripts on drunkenness, swearing, adultery and much more…”).  Or they may choose a document that is easy to read.

Will there be mistakes?  Of course.

Says Ms. Leon of crowd-sourced transcription,

We’re not looking for perfect.  We’re looking for progressive improvement, which is a completely different goal from someone who is creating a letter press edition.”

There are more historical papers needing transcription.  After more than five decades only slightly more than half of James Madison’s papers have been transcribed and published.  Work on Thomas Jefferson’s papers was begun in 1943 and may not be finished until 2025.

The Bentham project is the first to try crowd-sourced transcription and to open up a traditionally undemocratic scholarly endeavor to the general public. 

Max Evans quotes from a 1791 letter by Thomas Jefferson. 

Let us save what remains [of national documents] not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident.

sole source:  Patricia Cohen’s NY Times article on 12/27/2010, “Scholars Recruit Public for Project.”  http://www.nytimes.com

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