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Crowd-sourcing transcription of historical texts

University College London has a treasure trove in the papers of the Enlightenment philosopher [w:Jeremy Bentham]. In the last 50 years, it has published 27 volumes of his writings — less than half of the 70 or so volumes ultimately expected. In an attempt to spur this project along, they’re crowd-sourcing the transcription of the historical documents according to the NY Times.

The story also mentions another interesting crowd-sourcing project at George Mason University to reconstitute the papers of the early War Department (1784-1800) which had been destroyed by a fire on November 8, 1800. Sharon Leon, a historian at George Mason University and Director of Public Projects at the Center for History and New Media — developers of one of my favorite Web tools, Zotero! — recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to design a free plug-in that any archive or library could use to open transcription to the public.

Obviously crowd-sourcing is becoming an invaluable tool for expanding the reach of scholarship. Last week, I mentioned the Old Weather project which is crowd-sourcing old weather observations made by UK Royal Navy ships around the time of World War I in order to assist with climate model projections and improve a database of weather extremes. Old Weather is part of the Zooniverse of crowd-sourcing projects to help scientific projects.

Some, like Daniel Stowell, the director and editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, IL, point out that hiring of nonacademic transcribers is not a panacea and in fact could produce so many errors as to make crowd-sourcing expensive and even more time consuming in correcting errors.

But, as Ms Leon points out, “We’re not looking for perfect. We’re looking for progressive improvement, which is a completely different goal from someone who is creating a letter-press edition.”

Dare I point out that the FDLP has been crowd-sourcing US government documents since 1813?! As Tomas Jefferson wrote in a 1791 letter, “Let us save what remains, not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident.”

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