J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Crowd-sourcing Mr. Bentham and Mr. Madison

Yesterday I used the word “crowd-sourcing,” which seems to be a growing buzzword in digital humanities—especially when funding for traditional, in-house transcription projects is in jeopardy.

One example related to the eighteenth century is Transcribe Bentham, centered at the University College London. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the only utilitarian philosopher whose taxidermied body I’ve seen, left thousands of pages of handwritten drafts, notes, and other material. This digital initiative invited anyone to sign up and translate that material into digital texts. The “About Us” page introduces the process:
Access the Transcription Desk, where you can create a user account which will give you transcribing privileges. You can then select a manuscript to view and transcribe, save your work, and return to view your own contributions. You can interact with other users by creating a social profile and by sharing ideas in the discussion forum. There is a quickstart guide to using the tool and detailed guidelines on how to transcribe the manuscripts. You can contact us for general advice, help with a specific problem or for further information.
Currently there are over 1,600 registered transcribers. Given that the project says elsewhere that the collective has completed 3,300 manuscripts, that doesn’t suggest high productivity from every registrant. But of course the project just needs enough.

Here in North America, Montpelier recently announced ConText’s crowd-sourcing project to create an extensive commentary on James Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention. That site says:
The Notes of Debates in ConText addresses a real need in our constitutional scholarship. There is currently no systematic, accessible commentary on the Notes that explains the details and context of each decision made at the convention, while also describing the subsequent (and ongoing) debates over constitutional meaning that have stemmed from those decisions. With this site, we are providing the most up-to-date analysis of the Framers’ debates by some of the country’s leading academic voices.
This project too offers registered users a chance to add their own comments. Discussions about the meaning and current importance of the convention’s decisions could conceivably get heated.

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