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Transcribe Bentham Project by Dr Tim Causer

Box 116, folio 9 of UCL’s Bentham Papers

Courtesy UCL Special Collections

‘Many hands make light work. Many hands together make merry work’, wrote the philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham in 1793. It is in this spirit that the double award-winning collaborative transcription project, Transcribe Bentham—since its launch in 2010 under funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council—recruits volunteers from around the world to assist in the work of University College London’s (UCL) Bentham Project.

Jeremy Bentham is perhaps best known for being the originator of the panopticon prison, and for having requested that his body be preserved after his death; Bentham’s auto-icon sits on display at UCL to this day, where it remains a source of fascination (and no little bafflement). However, the panopticon and auto-icon can tend to overshadow Bentham’s profound historical impact and contemporary significance. Bentham was the founder of the modern doctrine of utilitarianism—that the right and proper end of all action is the promotion of the greatest happiness. Bentham’s so-called ‘felicific calculus’ is the inspiration for cost-benefit analysis, while his Nonsense upon Stilts is an important critique of the doctrine of natural rights (forerunning the modern conception of human rights). Bentham’s systematic theory of punishment emphasised deterrence, proportionality, and the reformation of the offender, he was major theorist of representative democracy, and also wrote upon topics as varied as jury reform, religion, political economy, and sexual morality (and this is only a bare summary of his interests).

Since 1959, the Bentham Project has been producing volumes of the new, critical edition of the Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham—based on both Bentham’s published works and his unpublished manuscripts—which will supersede the inadequate and incomplete eleven-volume edition of Bentham’s writings published between 1838 and 1843 by his literary executor, John Bowring. The scale of this task is enormous: UCL’s Bentham Papers collection runs to some 60,000 manuscript folios (c. 30 million words), while the British Library holds another 12,500 folios (c. 6 million words). To date, twenty-nine of a projected seventy volumes of the new edition have been published, and the majority of the Bentham Papers—a resource of great historical and philosophical significance—are untranscribed, their contents largely unknown (save for an outline index), and the collection is inaccessible to researchers unable to visit UCL Library’s Special Collections.

Volunteers who participate in Transcribe Bentham are making a material difference to research and scholarship, and are widening access to the Bentham Papers by transcribing these unpublished manuscripts. The work of Transcribe Bentham’s participants has two main purposes. First, transcripts of a sufficient quality are uploaded to UCL Library’s free-to-access digital Bentham Papers repository, where interested parties can access and search them in great detail, prior to the intervention of a Collected Works editor. Second, Transcribe Bentham volunteers make a contribution to humanities research: their transcripts will act as a starting point for editors of future Collected Works volumes. Furthermore, since many of the manuscripts have not been read since Bentham wrote them, there is also the potential for significant new discoveries to be made, such as the identification by volunteers of a third, unpublished section of Bentham’s Panopticon versus New South Wales (1802), his attack on the practice of transporting convicts to Australia.

The Bentham Project is currently editing Bentham’s writings on political economy, and whilst the transcription for the first two volumes was almost complete prior to the launch of Transcribe Bentham, volunteers have been working on a large batch of manuscripts which contains the text of ‘A Tract Intituled [sic] Circulating Annuities’, which has never before been published. Building upon the work of volunteer transcribers to attempt to reconstitute this text will be as exciting as it will be challenging. Bentham spent almost a year in planning, drafting, and revising this major work, and provided a précis of this text elsewhere. If the mass of substantive and illustrative material provided by the recent publication of the full text of ‘Pauper Management Improved’ (in Writings on the Poor Laws, volume II, 2010) is compared with the truncated ‘Outline’ of that work, published by Bentham, there is reason to be optimistic that the publication of an unexpurgated text of his Annuity Note scheme will present an exciting resource to Bentham scholars and historians of economic thought alike. The work of Transcribe Bentham volunteers will significantly expedite work on this material, and contribute to its seeing light of day, and their contributions will be fully acknowledged.

To date, Transcribe Bentham volunteers have transcribed almost 5,500 complex Bentham manuscripts (or an approximate 2.75 million words). By any measure this is an enormous amount of work, made all the more impressive by the fact that participants generally had little or no experience of transcribing historical documents prior to taking part.

Transcribe Bentham is now supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s ‘Scholarly Communications’ programme, which will allow for the digitisation of almost all of the remainder of the UCL Bentham Papers, and the entirety of the British Library’s Bentham collection, as well as making modifications and improvements to the transcription interface in order further to widen participation in this endeavour.

We at the Bentham Project are extremely grateful to volunteer transcribers for their efforts in helping to create a hugely important resource for scholars, students, researchers and the general public. We warmly invite anyone with an interest in Bentham and his works to access the material, or join the project’s volunteers and try their hand at transcribing a manuscript.

Transcribe Bentham project blog: http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/transcribe-bentham/

Transcribe Bentham transcription website: http://www.transcribe-bentham.da.ulcc.ac.uk/td/Transcribe_Bentham/

Bentham Papers digital repository: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/library/bentham/