NEH & The NYPL – Creating “What’s on the Menu?”

The financial assistance to support the proliferation of digital media has been aided through grants from agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). In its Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants guidelines, the NEH provides specific details of how a proposed grant should be written. The NEH provides Level I grants of up to $25,000 for digital media projects that are in development stages, and Level II grants between $25,000-$50,000 for more advanced projects to be immediately launched. The grant application guidelines provide specifics for what each application should comprise. In the Narrative Section IV, institutions applying need to inform the NEH how their project will enhance the humanities through innovation, place their project in the environment of existing programs with similar missions, give historical background to their project, a detailed work plan, staffing requirements, and how the final product will be disseminated to the public.  The New York Public Library’s “What’s on the Menu?” crowdsourcing tool is an example of a successful grant application to the NEH. The NEH provides on its website the narrative portion of the NYPL application to give other institutions a sense of what a successful application contains.

The NYPL’s application follows the guidelines of the NEH as written. The Enhancing the Humanities Through Innovation section highlights the opportunities for cultural history contained in ephemera like a menu. This section explains the difficulty in transcribing a document as unique as a menu and why crowdsourcing it could make it an achievable task. This section also hints at the potential integration of “What’s on the Menu?” with the Library’s “NYC Historical GIS,” a crowdsourcing project using the Library’s collection of maps. In conjunction, these two projects “suggest a radical evolution of the very idea of a public library: a library that is not only used, but built by the public.” The data produced through crowdsourcing has exciting potential for revising the history of New York City through its cuisine. The application emphasizes that the data created by the public would not exist for its own sake, but would be able to be manipulated and used for a wide variety of purposes.

The next section of the application, Environmental Scan, surveys similar crowdsourcing projects across the web. The application explains the advances “What’s on the Menu?” would make, extending crowdsourcing to a new type of document, integrating the data produced into the library infrastructure, and using the appeal of food as a means of tapping into public interest. This section highlights already successful examples of crowdsourcing such as the Jeremy Bentham Transcription Initiative. The History and Duration section explains the origins of the menu collection at the NYPL, dating from 1900, to recent actions taken to digitize and make accessible the collection.

The remaining sections of the application’s Narrative give more concrete details of the project. The Work Plan explains how the NEH funds will be used in developing the website. The Staff section provides the key team members and their roles in the project. And the Final Product and Dissemination section gives a narrative overview of what the beta version of the website will do, and how “What’s on the Menu?” will be publicized. In sum, the NYPL’s application closely follows the guidelines set by the NEH. I feel this is a successful example of a cultural institution articulating its vision for a digital media project to further disseminate and engage the public with its holdings.

Now that we have been exposed to the final “What’s on the Menu?” website as a class practicum, seeing the guidelines and application of the NYPL for funding from the NEH, and from reading Brown on the methodology of communicating website design, how do you now evaluate this website? Do you feel the NYPL achieves the vision it set forth in its application? Did they successfully follow the guidelines given by the NEH? Does it apply the website design principles of Brown and deliver a user-friendly experience? Let me know what you think.

4 Replies to “NEH & The NYPL – Creating “What’s on the Menu?””

  1. Not to ignore your thoughtful discussion questions, I just wanted to note that the attempt to facilitate some level of transparency in the grant process by posting examples of successful applications like the one submitted by the NYPL seems to demonstrate the NEH’s commitment to supporting innovative projects. While the detailed guidelines provided by this and many other granting institutions do much to guide the proposal writing process, reading through a concrete example of a funded project application clarifies even further the necessary level of detail and the appropriate spin necessary to turn project ideas into working resources for the public. Whether as future higher education scholars or future public historians, the demand for grant-writing skills that successfully garner support for research projects is equally high so exposure to the inner workings of the process early on is vitally important.

  2. Scott,

    I think the NYPL’s “What’s on the Menu?” does live up to the expectations it lays out in the grant proposal. I think generally speaking, it does provide a user-friendly experience. The homepage is clean looking, there is not a lot of text clutter all over the place, it has the tabs at the top where people can read about what the project is, get help, look at the menus and dishes, etc. The one complaint I would make about the site is the ‘data’ section. Opening the data into a user-friendly program like Excel or Numbers does not work (at least it did not in my case). Parts of the tabs are cut off and it is formatted in a way that it is a very long document with endless numbers and menu titles. It does not open into a regular spreadsheet format. Also, I could only open half of the zip files, the computer said the files were too large. In its current state, the data is very non-user-friendly, it defeats the purpose of program, to make the information and accessible and useful to historians, chefs and other interested groups.

    Aside from the ‘data’ section however, I think the site is easy to use, straightforward and fun. There is such a variety of interests that could use the site and bring people into contact with professionals or hobbyists in groups they would not normally interact with.


  3. I have to agree with Jamie–by having an example of an approved proposal, the NEH is providing an exellent example of what they are looking for when they are evaluating grant proposals. I also find it interesting to be able to see the original plan and goals of the NYPL’s project, “What’s on the Menu?,” after having explored the site a bit and acted as a transcriber. One goal I did notice that was planned for but did not make it on to the Beta form of “What’s on the Menu?” was the user registration, tracking, and award system. I feel that if there had been a tracking system with awards for transcribers, I would have been more likely to transcribe for a longer period of time than I did. This particular plan for the site would have made the Beta form far better than it was. Still, I’m very much looking forward to the future development of the site!

  4. Jamie—I’m an English undergrad, so I’m not up on the practice of awarding grants, but is what NEH does in uploading the original proposal a rarity? You mention that transparency that looking at NYPL’s proposal brings to the process—I couldn’t agree more. Awarding grants seems like a process that should absolutely require such clarity, so I find it somewhat surprising that the process may not always be this clear. I like that it establishes a modicum of accountability as well. Someone mentioned that NYPL’s initial proposal had the outline of an award system of sorts and expressed disappointment that this feature wasn’t included. It’s nice that we can trace the ambition from the planning stages to the final product.

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