A great example of the power and benefits of using the crowd to augment an archive is the New York Public Library's Menu Collection. The Buttolph Collection contains thousands of menus collected between 1840 and 1920, most of them acquired by one woman, Miss Frank E. Buttolph, and is one of the largest collections of menus in the world (40,000 pieces). Before the collection was digitized, anyone interested in the collection had to make an appointment at the library in New York City and go through each menu by hand. That was until the library scanned in about 20 percent of its collection and made it possible for anyone to go to the site, retrieve a random menu, and transcribe each of the dishes on the menu. Now it's possible to search the transcribed menus and see them online. The What's on the Menu? project has been wildly successful and more menus are being scanned in. According to the library website, as of “Sunday November 20, 2011, there have been 632,555 dishes transcribed from 10,823 menus.”
You might ask why anyone would care about old menus other than them being an interesting way to whittle away a few minutes or maybe an afternoon. In fact, the menus can be useful to biologists interested in learning what fish were abundant enough to be on the menus during a given time period. Historians might use them to see what kinds of foods were available at different times of the year and what in regions. And, if we know the restaurant at which a historical person or literary character ate, we can find out what he or she might have eaten.
Since anyone can contribute to the project, it would make a great assignment for a class. Students could choose a menu to transcribe; research the recipes; research the restaurant’s history and so on. They would be making a contribution to a large, public project but at the same time, through their research, they would have a personal stake in it.
This was going to be a response to Melody Dvorak’s recent post, Video: Digital Humanities for Museums and Archives, but then I saw the images of menus on the library site and wanted to include a couple here.
The two images I've included here are from a 1920 Horn and Hardart menu. The restaurant was the first automat-cafeteria (they also had waitress service) and operated for about 60 years, starting in 1902.