Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"Many Hands Make Light Work"

I'll never forget the first time I visited University College London and saw Jeremy Bentham's mummified remains on display in a large glass box in the main corridor. The head is not the original, but everything else is what's left of the great Enlightenment philosopher who died in 1832. Frankly, the sight unnerved me a bit. My husband assured me that Bentham had ordered that his body be dissected, embalmed, and displayed, and that his remains were brought out for departmental meetings and other events. The illustration for this post is a photograph of Bentham as he is displayed at UCL.

The philosopher was extremely prolific, and UCL began to publish his writings over fifty years ago; so far, only twenty-seven volumes have been published, "less than half of the 70 or so ultimately expected," according to an article in The New York Times. The publication project is under the aegis of the Bentham Project, which has hit upon a novel approach to transcribing Bentham's papers, which are already scanned and available online. There are approximately "40,000 unpublished manuscripts from University College's collection," and the organizers of the Project have turned to the public to help them transcribe the documents. This approach, familiar from Wikipedia, is known as crowd-sourcing, and draws on volunteers--"350 registered users have produced 435 transcripts" so far. No specialized credentials are required of the volunteers, and their work is vetted by editors before becoming part of the print edition of Bentham's collected works. Advocates of this approach point out that it has the "potential to cut years, even decades, from the transcription process while making available to the public and ... scholars miles of documents that are now off limits, difficult to read or unsearchable."

As with any new approach, there are those who are not enthusiastic. There is "tension between experts and amateurs." The experts tend to want to make the work perfect before it is published. They also point to the many mistakes made by volunteer transcribers. According to Daniel Stowell, who directs the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, "nonacademic transcribers ... produced so many errors and gaps in the papers that 'we were spending more time and money correcting them as creating them from scratch.'"

Reading this article, I thought of the quotation attributed to Voltaire: "The perfect is the enemy of the good." The original French is: "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien," and it comes from the 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique. There are many different interpretations of the saying, and if you're interested, click here to read some. To me, what Voltaire meant is that trying to reach perfection, which may well be unattainable, can get in the way of achieving something very good that would benefit many people. Isn't it better to produce a very good transcription now instead of waiting decades for a transcription that may be only marginally better? There are a number of transcription projects that are taking years to complete that might be candidates for the crowd-sourcing approach if scholars running the projects could overcome their concerns about the quality of the transcriptions produced by volunteers. The Times article mentions the papers of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, both of which are years behind schedule, and also a collection of 55,000 unpublished eighteenth-century documents from the War Department, which will be transcribed starting in January 2011 with the aid of volunteers.

1 comment:

Betsy McKenzie said...

Imagine setting up in your will to attend faculty meetings through eternity! Whatta guy Bentham must have been. And I can only imagine the effect it must have on new faculty members the first time they attend a meeting at UCL! Even if you know about it ahead of time, it must still be an emotional experience.