Did I mention that we are very excited to be contributing to UCL’s Bentham Transcription Initiative. This is an AHRC-funded project to complete the digitisation of the manuscripts of 18th Century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and transcribe them using a wiki-based collaborative approach. It is being run by the Bentham Project at UCL, with support from ourselves and UCL’s newly-launched Centre for Digital Humanities. You can read an overview of the project on Melissa Terras’s blog.
Obviously, transcription of manuscript materials is an important digitisation activity that can rarely, if ever, be left to computers, in the way that printed texts can be, using OCR. But it’s painstaking and laborious work, and anything that eases the burden is welcome.
The project is already throwing up some very interesting conversations about transcription. At ULCC we have thought about transcription before, particularly with regard to our ongoing work for the Linnean Society archives, and we hope that there will yet be synergies to exploit. It is a great feeling to be so closely involved with disseminating the work of two such seminal figures as Linnaeus and Bentham.
We’re not naïve enough to think that collaborative web-based transcription is new, but we’ve yet to find any substantial comparable examples. A comment on UCL’s Digital Humanities blog teases us with the prospect of information about other similar projects, but fails to provide even a single link or hint, so is effectively useless: hardly in the collaborative spirit! A more useful lead was Joanne Evans’ link to the National Library of Australia’s Australian Newspapers project, which is crowdsourcing the proof-reading and correcting of OCR outputs, and has an impressive-looking site – I’m sure we’ll be borrowing some ideas from there.
Another useful lead has been from Ben Brumfield of Austin, Texas, directing us to his blog about collaborative manuscript transcription which has been going even longer than DA Blog, and looks like it’s going to make interesting reading. Ben’s recent blog post about a distributed transcription exercise of the US Geological Survey’s Bird Phenology Program includes a link to a training video for volunteers (it even sounds like it’s been recorded in a birdhouse). In the video we can see a database-form approach to transcription, which is particularly appropriate for transcribing data already entered on structured forms.
For more heterogeneous and free-form texts, such as the Bentham manuscripts, wikis seem to me much more appropriate, being in essence discrete hypertext engines. As for collaborative features, MediaWiki in particular has strong and proven features: there can be few better advertisements for effective virtual, global collaboration and crowdsourcing than Wikipedia.
One thing that is particularly compelling about the BPP video is that it is an excellent example of a thorough approach to online collaboration, giving clear and unequivocal guidance to contributors. Now that screencast tools are so readily available, it’s clear that for many activities like this, video-based instruction is the ideal tool, and often preferable to any number of written instructions. No less than for online teaching and learning environments, the need for effective induction and inclusive management of the online community must never be overlooked.