Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Bend It Like Bentham

Well, once more into the fray, after a rather lengthy absence. My explanation is that I've been paralyzed in a continuing limbo, hovering between two writing projects, one of which is historical and the other not. But I've decided that's no excuse not to continue posting, if I can think of something to say that's relevant to the ostensible themes of this blog -- history, fiction, and the interplay between the two.

I've thought of something that's relevant to one of them, anyway: history. Last week the New York Times ran a piece about a documentary editing project--an edition of the papers of the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham--that I found intriguing. I used to work on a documentary editing project myself--the Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800, where I came across the letters that inspired my novel, A More Obedient Wife. Generally speaking, documentary editing is a slow, painstaking task that requires a keen eye for detail and a detective-like ability to make sense of illegible scrawls and fragmentary documents. At my project, it took us 30 years to get through the Court's first decade, and that's a mere blink of an eye compared to some projects: the Papers of Thomas Jefferson project published its first volume in 1950 and they're still working at it. And the Bentham Project itself began more than 50 years ago and is less than halfway through.

So the folks at the Bentham Project, based at University College London, had the idea of throwing open the transcription process to the general public. Some 40,000 original, handwritten Bentham documents have been put online, and anyone with an interest--or perhaps a masochistic streak--is free to take a crack at them. Given my 10 years of documentary editing experience, I thought it would only be a public service for me to give it a try. And, having viewed Bentham's clothed corpse some 35 years ago--it's kept on display at UCL in a glass case--I felt I had a personal connection to the man. Not to mention that he held unusually progressive views, for the early 19th century, on subjects like religion and women's rights.

I started with an "easy" document, figuring I'd breeze through it. I did manage to puzzle out a few words that had stumped whoever else had attempted to transcribe the document before me--the transcription project operates on a "wiki" model, with one person correcting the errors of those who have gone before, or perhaps adding to them. But, even though my last stint as a documentary editor ended only four years ago, I discovered that it's a whole new world out there in documentary-editing land--and in some respects, I suppose, a brave one.

Back in my day, we had all sorts of complex computer codes we had to enter to denote different typographical idiosyncrasies we wanted reproduced: strike-outs, superscripts, underlining and the like. We had a sheet of codes, most of which I managed to memorize after a few years. But nowadays there are convenient little icons at the top of the page--click on the question mark, for example, and your guess at whatever the hell Bentham was trying to say automatically gets the computer code for "questionable."

There's also the wonder of the "zoom" feature: click on a part of the document you want to get a closer look at, and all of a sudden it gets bigger. In my day we bent our face to the manuscript like some scribe of old, squinting and turning it in the light (okay, sometimes we used a magnifying glass).

On the other hand, it's harder to see the document as a whole and get a feel for the gist of it: it takes up only one part of the screen, with the other part reserved for your attempt at transcription. There are navigation controls that allow you to move around the document, but I've found them a little cumbersome. I'm getting better, but sometimes, for no apparent reason, the controls go careening away from me and I find myself involuntarily skittering over to the very edge of the document.

But the real question--raised in the Times article--is whether mere amateurs can make enough sense of the documents for their efforts to be valuable. (And the Times article itself seems to have opened the floodgates: it reported that there were 350 people registered to be transcription volunteers, and since then the number has zoomed to over a thousand.) I'm not exactly an amateur, and even I had trouble deciphering much of the "easy" document (although I imagine it will get easier as I get more familiar with Bentham's handwriting). Frankly, I think I'm better than the average bear at reading archaic handwriting, and I have to wonder how accurate other people's transcriptions will be. As I mentioned, in the three brief transcription sessions I've done so far, I discovered a number of errors.

Of course, members of the Bentham Project staff will go over all the volunteer transcriptions before any of them get published--and they're surely in a better position than I am to decide if the volunteers are a help or a hindrance. It may well be better to start with a flawed transcription than to start with nothing.

And why not let whoever is interested see the raw documents themselves, rather than waiting decades for a published edition? There may be people out there who discover--as I did, over 20 years ago now--that there's nothing more absorbing than puzzling over a document written 200 years ago, tracing the author's mental processes through his or her deletions and additions, becoming familiar with individual quirks of handwriting, enjoying the satisfaction of making a coherent sentence out of something that at first glance appears to be random marks on a piece of paper.

If it turns out I'm actually furthering the progress of the Bentham Papers, I'll be delighted to hear it. But honestly, I'll probably keep going back to the project website just for the sheer fun of doing it.

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