Transcribe Bentham: Utile or Futile?

by Annie Li

“Many hands make light work. Many hands together make merry work.” Cute, right? Transcribe Bentham borrows these words from philosopher Jeremy Bentham to begin its self-introduction in a very fitting way: as an online platform that exists to foster collaboration in manuscript transcription, the project definitely brings together the many hands, eyes and minds of virtual volunteers for lighter and merrier work (and to serve a greater purpose, duh).

Jeremy Bentham (Meme edited for respectability)

As someone who took philosophy in her final year of high school and first year of undergrad—and more importantly, as someone who nearly chose philosophy as her second major—I feel like I can say I’m decently familiar with Bentham and his school of thought. So, the “Crowdsourcing Bentham” article by Causer and Terras (part of our readings for Week 4) pretty much immediately piqued my interest. After exploring the Transcribe Bentham site for myself, well… I’ve formed a few thoughts on this University College London-run platform.

Thankfully, anyone with a computer and decent Internet access can get involved with the transcription project. Also, older, untouched texts are able to be “picked up” and worked with again: yay! We’re reviving the dead here. According to the Causer/Terra reading, there are some images of manuscripts that haven’t been read since Bentham composed them, which just has me shook. (How have those in the field not looked at them yet, if they’re so invaluable? Hmm.) But anyways, the fact that there have been amazing discoveries made from volunteers’ contributions is something we can all be happy about.

The “Transcription Desk” in action

To me, Transcribe Bentham is an interesting way for “regular” people to contribute to academia, as it’s structured like a sort of “puzzle”—if you’re able to decode Bentham’s scrawls and handwriting, an immense feeling of pride (or at least satisfaction) has to come from it. Plus, if you’re immersed and dedicated enough, you can learn about reading different, older hands as well as become well-versed in markup language. The thing is, this can turn around to bite you in the behind… you’ll see.

OKAY, SO. Take a look at the “Getting Started” and “Transcription Guidelines” pages. There are so many rules. Sooo many. There’s even a part coined “Terms Used in the Guidelines”; it’s section 8 of the “Transcription Guidelines” page. What does it mean when users need a separate section just to understand the guidelines themselves? It can be off-putting, especially when on their homepage, Transcribe Bentham says “We warmly invite you to take part in this endeavour: no special skills are required, you do not require approval to participate, and every contribution—no matter how small—is of great value”.


“Transcription Guidelines” contents

I mentioned earlier that dedicated volunteers can become familiar with markup language—this is because you literally have to edit your own transcriptions to be machine-readable. Basically, if you don’t know code that well (or at all), you have to learn it on your own. The “Encoding / Markup” section of the guidelines goes over most of the basic markup tags which can be used to edit raw transcriptions. Honestly though, as I’ve learned over the last few weeks of learning code, it takes a lot of practice to become familiar with this strange “language”. Many users give up, as can be seen by the (pretty sad) overall transcription progress: 45 percent! What’s more, there’s actually an evaluation process that occurs after transcriptions are submitted, so the whole project isn’t as “public” as they’d like us to think.

Obviously, I think the whole idea of Transcribe Bentham is really cool (shh I know, slightly nerdy), but in practice, things could definitely be vastly improved. If there were more interesting tutorials in place, users of all ages and from all walks of life might be more willing to sit through them and actually learn. The narrator in the current tutorial videos sounds terribly monotonous and unenthusiastic.

Come on, people, at least remove the “.avi” from your video title…

Also, if they could integrate a more exciting, game-like feel into the Transcribe Bentham platform with a full reward system, people might find more motivation to contribute. Maybe add customizable avatars? I don’t know. I mean, we already know how much people like to compete, even if just for that feeling of instant gratification, as Evgeny Morozov mentions in To Save Everything, Click Here (which, by the way, fellow Bae Banterer Maggie comments on in detail in her post from last week). It’s kinda sad that it’s come to this, but it’s undeniable: generally, people are more willing to do “stuff” online if they’re rewarded with trophies at the end. Personally, I wish it weren’t this way—sniff sniff, what happened to intrinsic motivation?—but, hey… that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

That’s all for this week, folks. Thanks for tuning in. Just one P.S. to the makers and admin over at Project Bentham: for the love of all that’s holy, get a functioning search bar! 😡

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