Breaking Down Menus Digitally, Dish by Dish

Lauren Lancaster for The Chronicle

Michael Inman (right) and Rebecca Federman are curatorial leads on the New York Public Library's menu project, and Ben Vershbow (center) is the manager of the NYPL Labs, an experimental unit that works closely with the curators.
April 29, 2012

If you'd dined at the Sherman Square Hotel in New York City on May 31, 1937, you could have refreshed yourself with a sauerkraut-juice cocktail, moved on to cold soup in jelly, tucked into minced capon en crème or lamb's tongue with a side of potato salad, and finished off the meal with California figs in syrup or a nice slice of apple pie.

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The Sherman Square no longer exists. It fell on hard times in the 1960s and was judged "tawdry" enough to raze in 1969 as part of the urban-renewal juggernaut. The dishes served up to the hotel's diners, however, live on at the New York Public Library, in a collection of 40,000 or so menus—many from New York City—that date from the 1840s to the present. Thanks to the power of crowdsourcing and a creative partnership between technology experts and curators, those menus are being posted online and transcribed for everyone to see and use.

The "What's on the Menu?" project is a powerful example of how a library can use technology to recruit members of the public to help it handle labor-intensive tasks, in this case transcribing thousands of dishes from digital copies of the menus posted on the project's Web site. But the benefits go far beyond free labor.

"It really is a proof of concept for making similar types of collections even more accessible," says Ann Thornton, the Andrew W. Mellon director of the New York Public Libraries. It's not just about "what fancy tools you can create," she says, "but how those tools facilitate knowledge and how to help the community use it."

"What's on the Menu?" calls attention to one of the library's so-called edge collections, valuable but often hard-to-access ephemera like menus. It lets curators not necessarily trained in digital work explore how technology can help them engage in new ways with patrons. It invites those patrons to take an active hand in making the most of the library's cultural-heritage collections. And it could become a template for how a 21st-century library defines and fulfills its mission.

"We really see this as an exciting experimentation with what the library's doing, the kinds of services it provides, how it mobilizes collections, but also with the idea of what a library is," says Ben Vershbow, manager of the NYPL Labs group. The experimental unit designed "What's on the Menu?" in close collaboration with library curators.

Mr. Vershbow began to pull together the Labs group in the fall of 2011. It functions as a kind of digital-curation, ideas-and-tools incubator within the library. The team works in a wide-open, modern space embedded in what used to be a courtyard in the heart of the library's famous Beaux-Arts building—the one with the lions—at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The sound of visitors' voices and footsteps drift up from the marble halls and permeate the Labs space.

In addition to Mr. Vershbow, the Labs staff includes David Riordan, product manager, and the developers Mauricio Giraldo Arteaga and Zeeshan Lakhani. Young and enthusiastic, they come from the world of start-ups and tech development and bring a quick-to-adapt, on-their-toes energy to what they do. Mr. Vershbow, who's also active in the theater world, used to work for the Institute for the Future of the Book. "None of us have a library background," he says. "We're all lovers of libraries."

They come at library work from angles not necessarily taught in library school. As Mr. Riordan says, much of their work revolves around questions like, "What would the library look like if it was a series of API's?" (The term refers to application programming interfaces, code that helps software programs talk to each other.)

This isn't work that only technophiles and geeks could love, though. The Labs group brings its technical inventiveness to bear on the raw stuff of New York history. Besides menus, that includes playbills, city directories, and maps.

The Labs group is new, but the library has been experimenting with this kind of work for some time. A now-defunct digital group, led by Joshua M. Greenberg, now director of the Digital Information Technology program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, helped create an interactive, public, online project called Map Warper. Volunteers from the public use a set of online tools to digitally align the library's extensive collection of historic New York City maps so that they match up with modern maps. More recently, the Labs made a splash with the Stereogranimator, which invites users to create new 3-D art with the library's collection of old stereoscopic images.

"What's on the Menu?" has all the ingredients of a crowd pleaser. It taps into today's foodie craze. (Even the celebrity chef Mario Batali gave it a glowing review.) It feeds people's appetite to know how men and women in other eras lived their lives, down to what they ate and drank. It conjures up a romantic Old New York of oyster houses and Rob Roys and tournedos Rossini, a filet-mignon entree once popular in restaurants that specialized in Continental fare. (The New York Times recently wrote an ode to the dish, recovering the recipe with the help of "What's on the Menu?")

It's also supereasy to participate. There's no software to download, no training required. All you have to do is go to the site and click the "Start Transcribing!" button.

And the public has responded. "What's on the Menu?" opened its virtual doors in April 2011. As of late April 2012, it had received upwards of 77,000 unique visits, from volunteers who had transcribed more than 865,660 dishes from more than 13,440 menus. On average, users linger for more than seven minutes and look at more than 25 pages on each visit. There have been more than three million page views in the past year.

Transcribing takes place in anonymity. Users don't have to register or share any identifying details. "We're a library," Mr. Riordan says. "We believe in privacy."

That makes it hard to know how much transcription each visitor accomplishes and who the heavyweight transcribers are. Mr. Vershbow says that the number of unique visitors is a rough proxy for the total number of volunteer transcribers.

Even before it went online, the menus collection attracted a wide array of researchers, according to Michael Inman, the library's curator of rare books. It's been a draw for restaurateurs, students of culinary history and graphic design, and "novelists who are perhaps looking for period detail, like how much beer cost in 1935," among others.

Given the menus' enduring appeal, the curators expected "What's on the Menu?" to be at least a modest hit. "It's far outstripped anything that we imagined," Mr. Inman says.

Rebecca Federman, head of the library's culinary collections, jokes that "people are hungry" for menus to transcribe. But there's truth in the joke. When it went live a year ago, "What's on the Menu?" posted 9,000 menus. It only took the public about three months to transcribe them all, handily beating the library's projections.

Lisa Mandel, an active transcriber who now averages three menus a day, first heard about the project on a radio show. She describes herself as a food lover who has worked on cookbooks and assisted at cooking classes. But the appeal of "What's on the Menu?" goes far beyond food. She's fascinated by the historical details the menus harbor—for instance, World War II-era menus mention rationing of meat and sugar, and, in some eras, a fruit cocktail cost almost as much as a shrimp cocktail because fresh fruit was hard to obtain.

As Ms. Mandel's experience demonstrates, the problem "What's on the Menu?" faces now isn't recruiting a crowd of helpers but keeping them busy. The library team posts fresh material to transcribe as often as it can, Ms. Federman says. But the library's digitization unit works on a number of projects, "and we can't monopolize all their time."

When the subject of crowdsourcing comes up, the question of quality control is rarely far behind. So far, library curators say, the volunteers' work has been excellent.

Once in a while there's a typo or other minor error, but overall the transcriptions have been of high quality, according to Mr. Inman. Library workers, including interns, review the fully transcribed menus. Volunteers tend to police themselves and each other, he says.

Especially enthusiastic users like Ms. Mandel often get in touch via e-mail and the project's Twitter feed, @nypl_menus. "That just gives us a taste of what we could do if we had more formalized participation and structure," Mr. Vershbow says.

Many crowdsourcing projects, especially in the sciences, give credit to so-called power users, who participate frequently and have proven track records. The "What's on the Menu?" team would like to add an optional system to let people be recognized for their contributions. Power users might even be tapped more formally for some higher-level tasks, such as helping to review transcriptions for accuracy.

It's all part of drawing the public into the library's work. The Labs group and the curators have an ambitious vision for the kinds of public engagement such projects make possible.

They also see multiple research applications for the menu database. For instance, the species of fish being served on menus, and how much they cost, can tell biologists and environmental historians a lot about the rise and fall of fish stocks over time. Some day the information from the menu collection may be linked to the data from the library's collections of New York City maps and directories—the focus of yet another Labs project—to give patrons rich, specific layers of detail. Mr. Vershbow imagines a linked research environment in which patrons could move through "vast infoscapes" that describe the city and its inhabitants over time.

A project like "What's on the Menu?" might even help cultural institutions like the New York Public Library survive and thrive in the digital environment. That's an especially pressing issue for the institution as it embarks on a controversial plan to reshape the 42nd Street space, move many books off-site, and make more room for users and computers.

Trevor Owens, a digital archivist at the Library of Congress, recently wrote a blog post about how discussions of crowdsourcing tend to miss what's really significant about it. When done well, crowdsourcing can "provide meaningful ways for individuals to engage with and contribute to public memory," he wrote.

It's not enough just to digitize and post collections online. "What crowdsourcing does, that most digital-collection platforms fail to do, is offers an opportunity for someone to do something more than consume information," Mr. Owens wrote. "Far from being an instrument that enables us to ultimately better deliver content to end users, crowdsourcing is the best way to actually engage our users in the fundamental reason that these digital collections exist in the first place."

The library's Labs group, curators, and senior leaders agree. "What's on the Menu?" and similar projects "could potentially be the building blocks of a new kind of library," Anthony Marx, the library's president, told The Chronicle in an e-mail. "By rethinking the way we present our collections to the public and making them deeply interactive, we are extending the reach of the research libraries more than ever before."