Transcribing Bentham Experience

Like a number of other people in the class, I thought this exercise was going to be easier than it turned out to be. I have a lot of experience transcribing Medieval Latin manuscripts, and even some experience transcribing 18th century manuscripts in English for the Works of Jonathan Edwards project at Yale. I found it easy both to register for the Transcribe Bentham site and to use their transcription tool. I did not, however, find it easy to select a page for transcription. (Thanks to Melissa and Dan, who pointed out the banner with a link to un-transcribed material at the top of the Transcription Desk page.) And, of course, once I found links to the un-transcribed folios, it took a half-dozen tries to find one where I could actually read the handwriting.

I ended up transcribing JB/107/293/002, which was relatively easy, because it is a fair copy written out by one of Bentham’s copyists.

My main interest in this exercise was not to challenge my ability to read 18th and 19th century English manuscripts, but to evaluate the transcribing environment. In this regard, I think the Transcribing Bentham encoding tool compares quite well with similar systems (such as the excellent T-PEN for Medievalists.)

My only reservation about this approach to a “Big Humanities” project is that it privileges easier projects thatover more difficult projects that might have greater intrinsic scholarly value. I consider the Transcribe Bentham project (relatively) easier because a) the source manuscripts are written in the dominant language of the DH world, English, and b) the primary barrier to transcription is Bentham’s bad handwriting (i.e., transcribers do not need specialized paleographical training, which they almost certainly would for manuscripts much older than these). I understand that just because there’s certain things you can’t do (or at least can’t do easily) is not a reason not to do the things you can do. But every project has an opportunity cost, and I think we should always keep in mind which project we’d choose if all of the alternatives were equally doable.

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