What Happens When the Public Transcribes? The New York Public Library and What’s on the Menu?

imagesContinually, 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).[1] 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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4]

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.”[5] 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.”[6] 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.”[7] 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.[8]

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.

[1] 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).

[2] New York Public Library, “About,” What’s on the Menu?

[3] 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.

[4] Jennifer Howard, “Breaking Down Menus Digitally, Dish by Dish,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 29, 2012.

[5] Scott Mendenhall, “NEH & the NYPL- Creating “What’s on the Menu?,” DIGital HISTory, February 19, 2012.

[6] Trever Owens, “Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage: The Objectives Are Upside Down,” treverowens.org, March 10, 2012.

[8] Howard, “Breaking Down Menus Digitally;” Rebecca Federman, “Happy Birthday to…Us! A Year of Menus,” What’s on the Menu? Blog, April 20, 2012.


4 thoughts on “What Happens When the Public Transcribes? The New York Public Library and What’s on the Menu?

  1. Crowdsourcing is fascinating. Although, I find the documents they are choosing to transcribe odd. With all the handwritten documents sitting in boxes that take hours to read, why are they having people transcribe typed documents? I think the most important things to transcribe are documents written in cursive, especially because some schools are no longer teaching children how to write in cursive. This site is an excellent find for your research though!

    The number of visitors to this website and the level of engagement is also pretty amazing.

    1. That is an excellent point Jenny. I think they choose the menus because they are irregular enough not to good OCR (original character recognition, automatic transcription done by computer) results. Additionally, food is a hot topic right now, so the publicity is probably good for the library. I think it would be interesting to do letters, or handwritten documents, (actually another library in Iowa did it with Civil War Letters: http://diyhistory.lib.uiowa.edu/ ) but I wonder how the accuracy would be within that.

      1. Crowdsourcing is an interesting concept for me and I think you did an excellent job defining it. I agree wholeheartedly with Jenny at cursive writing should be transcribed. I also think it should still taught in schools, but then, from the perspective of most youngsters who’d be forced to learn it, I’m just an old guy so what do I know? Still, crowdsourcing raising interesting questions. Since we as individuals all create our own interpretation of history, could this be studied through the way we handle documents? Mass cursive writing source transcription, while hard, might be useful for revealing the different ways people interpret and approach the past based on measurements of differences in time spent on one style/period of writing over another.

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