Continually, public historians wrestle with the concept of shared authority, grappling with the notion of where historical authority lies and how audiences participate with sources. Digital history makes breaking these barriers easier, creating endless possibilities for public curation and infinitely more ways to connect with artifacts (albeit on a virtual level). The New York Public Library is pushing how patrons interact with special collections with their project What’s on the Menu? Launched in 2011, the project aimed to crowdsource transcriptions of the 10,000 digitized historic menus from the library’s collection of almost 45,000 menus.
Crownsourcing is certainly not a new concept. The term, meaning to outsource a task to a group of people, was first termed by Jeff Howe in Wired magazine in 2006 and was commonly used by scientists and political scientists. Heritage-based crowdsourced projects were not as common. The New York Public Library aimed to make the process of adding participating simple. Visitors only need to type menu text and prices into prescribed text boxes. No training, accounts, or log-ins are necessary, and visitors can easily download previously translated data from the library’s website.
This project puts the library in a unique position, allowing the public to connect on a very different level to collections. Usually, transcription is a droll and meticulous task, delegated to a controlled environment. This project puts the process in the hands of the public, a decision that could lead to inconsistent transcriptions, effectively defeating the point of the project. To account for this, library staff proof each transcription. According to the project, the quality has been high, and crowd sourced accuracy checks have been added to the site.
Beyond this pitfall, the library contents that the project takes a radical turn for libraries and archives, one that is “not only used, but built by the public.” Visitors engage more deeply with objects when they are asked to assist in the transcription process, asserts Trever Owens, a blogger and digital archivist at the Library of Congress. Crowdsourcing projects “fulfill the mission of digital collections better than a document. That is, when someone sits down to transcribe a document, they are actually better fulfilling the mission of the cultural heritage organization than anyone who simply stops by to flip through pages.” The library agrees, citing crowdsourced transcriptions as an “opportunity for someone to do something more than consume information… Crowdsourcing is actually the best way to engage our users in the fundamental reason that these digital collections exist in the first place.” This seems to have worked. Within a year, the site had exceeded its goals, digitized 866,636 dishes, from over 13,440 menus. The website has received 77,000 unique visits, where visitors spend over seven minutes looking at an average of twenty-five pages.
This project of digital community transcription process puts the work of public historians front and center. In a way, it puts tasks that are traditionally conducted behind closed doors out into the open. Participants have the opportunity to actively become historians, even for just the few minutes or hour that they transcribe. This may create more appreciation for the work archivist do, or at least appreciation for the institutions, like the New York Public Library, whom are endeavoring in this task. I agree with the library, that this project can re-envision their mission, but creating another opportunity to interact with collections and put the work of the historian in the spotlight.
 For further investigation of shared authority and public history see: Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, eds. Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (Philidelphia: Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, 2011).
 Since the launch of What’s on the Menu?, many other organizations have begun similar projects of their own, most notable the National Archives. For a list of other projects, see: Trever Owens, The Key Questions of Cultural Heritage Crowdsourcing Projects.
 Trever Owens, “Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage: The Objectives Are Upside Down,” treverowens.org, March 10, 2012.