Blog Post

Crowdsourcing the New York Public Library's Menu Collection

Crowdsourcing the New York Public Library's Menu Collection

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.



This is such a great project. Old recipes are both fun to look at and unleash the imagination, especially if you're Amy Sedaris. I have a friend and colleague who revived the recipes of Gervase Markham for a graduate research project blog, Modernizing Markham, which became part of her Center for the Book coursework. Makes me think that access inspires invention! Such potential for learning about past food cultures and adapting parts for our present ones.




Thanks for responding, Melody. We take food preparation and recipes for granted, but they are a such a rich resource for understanding our culture and history. I have several copies of The Joy of Cooking, including an edition from World War II that belonged to a great aunt. It's fascinating to compare the evolution of a single recipe across the volumes. Even the way things are measured changes--the earlier book often uses a goose egg as a reference for measurement (as in "a ball of lard the size of a goose egg"). The WWII version also contains recipes that account for food rationing.

Julia Skinner's work sounds fascinating, and I'm glad she's continuing her blogging. Spiced cranberry-orange vodka sounds great! Imagine a researcher 50 years from now, comparing all the food blogs.