Crowdsourcing History: Take a Look at What’s on the Menu?

This week’s practicum websites all employ some form of crowdsourcing to create content and/or augment existing content. Anyone with a computer and an internet connection can contribute to these projects. On Wikipedia, users actually write and edit the content of encyclopedia articles. Flickr is a great site for storing, organizing, and sharing your digital images and video and to immerse yourself in photography. In the Commons section of the site, users are encouraged to add tags and comments to photographs uploaded by participating cultural heritage institutions to provide additional information and help make the images more accessible. Finally, What’s on the Menu? encourages its users to transcribe content in the records of its extensive collection of digitized menus to facilitate access. As people are less likely to have heard of this project than the other two, I will offer an overview of the What’s on the Menu? site.

What’s on the Menu? ( is an effort by the New York Public Library (NYPL) to create a “database of dishes” from their collection of over 45,000 restaurant menus dating from the 1840s to the present so as to “learn about the foods of the last century to see what these historic menus can teach us about the culinary landscape today.” A library employee began the collection for the library in 1900, amassing more than half of the collection herself in the first 25 years of the century. Around a quarter of the menus have been digitized, but only basic information such as the restaurant name and location and the date of the menu were cataloged. The library would like to make information about the actual culinary content of the menus available to make it easier for people with interests in the history of food and culture to find and study this information. Thus in April of 2011, they launched What’s on the Menu?, inviting members of the public to help them transcribe the food and price information on the individual menus.

Figure 1. The Main Page of What's on the Menu?
Figure 1. The Main Page of What’s on the Menu?

Anyone is free to participate in the transcription, and volunteers need not sign up for any account to do so. Just click on the large green “Help Transcribe” button in the middle of the home page (Figure 1) to get started. This brings you to a screen where you can select a menu to transcribe. At the time of this writing in February 2015, there are four menus available for transcription. Clicking on the thumbnail for a menu brings you to the main page for that menu (Figure 2).

The Menu Page
Figure 2. The Individual Menu Page

A box to the left of the screen displays the basic cataloging info about that menu. Thumbnails of the individual pages of the menu are presented in the middle of the page as well as in a horizontal row at the top of the screen. To the right, another box displays the master dish list for the menu, which includes the dish, menu page number, and price information for any items that have already been entered for that menu.

Figure 3. An individual page from a menu.  The green check marks indicate a menu item that has already been transcribed.
Figure 3. An individual page from a menu. The green check marks indicate a menu item that has already been transcribed.

To begin transcribing the menu, click on a thumbnail for a page that appears to have food information on it. A larger version of the menu page appears on the screen (Figure 3), possibly already with some green check marks on it, along with the master dish list on the right. To actually transcribe, click on the first letter of any menu item that doesn’t already have a green check mark next to it. You are then brought to a page with a closer view of the part of the image that you just clicked on (which you can make even bigger by clicking on the largest A button underneath the image on the left; See Figure 4 below). You then enter the dish exactly as it appears on the menu (with a few caveats) in the text box below and the price of the item in the price box. Then click the “Enter Dish” button, and your work will be recorded. The screen reverts back to menu page, and you will see a green check mark next to the item you just entered. Easy!

Figure 4. Transcribing a menu item.
Figure 4. Transcribing a menu item.

You can transcribe as much or as little of the menu as you’d like. If you feel that all of the menu items on all pages of the menu have been transcribed, you can click the “Submit for Review” link, which is hard to see without knowing where it is already (on the left side above the horizontal row of menu thumbnails; See Figure 2). Doing so places the menu in the “Under Review” queue, which offers another opportunity for volunteers to assist with the project.

Reviewing entails checking over the transcribed menus for accuracy. You can find menus to review at the bottom of the site’s main page—either click on one of three menu thumbnails presented there, or if those don’t appeal, click on the words “Help Review” to see all of the menus that await their quality assurance check. Click on any menu, and then look for typos, price errors, and any missing items. To edit an item, click either the green check mark next to the item on the menu or the pencil icon next to the menu item in the master dish list. Either action brings you to the same screen you used to add new information, only it’s already filled in. Make your changes and click the “Enter Dish” button. There is also an option to delete the dish if it’s an entry that shouldn’t be there. Any missing items can be added in the same manner as before. When you have reviewed the entire menu and believe that it is accurate, click on the “Mark as Done” link, which is again on the left side above the horizontal row of menu images. The status of the menu is now “Done” and the menu items are searchable.

There is one more way that volunteers can add information to the menus. What’s on the Menu? is now adding geotagging to their menus. This feature can be accessed from the site’s main page by clicking on the “Map our Menus” image (Figure 1). There is also a link at the bottom of the basic cataloging info box on the menu page, just above the social media icons (Figure 2, not visible in screenshot). This brings you to NYPL’s geotagging application (Figure 5, below). You are presented with a large, scrollable image of a random menu. If there is a street address or a general city location for the establishment somewhere in the menu, enter it into the “Address or City” box and click the blue “Find on Map” button. Or if you determine that the menu is from a ship, train, or airplane, click the corresponding button below the map. Then hit submit, and the next menu in the queue will pop up. Again, you can stop at any time, and there is also a button to skip a particular menu if you’re not sure about the geographic data or just don’t wish to work on that menu.

Figure 5. Geotagging page.
Figure 5. Geotagging page.

There are multiple ways to access the information in the What’s on the Menu? database. Visitors can search by keyword in the search box in the upper right corner of the site’s pages. Place multiple terms in quotation marks for an “and” search, otherwise results will be returned for term A “or” term B. The menu bar in the page headers also includes tabs for Menus and Dishes. Both of these results can be limited to a particular decade. The Menu page can be further limited by place in the processing queue (new, under review, or done) and sorted by date, name, or dish count, while the Dishes page can be sorted by date, name, popularity, or obscurity. The clicking the link for the Explore section at the bottom of the main page will also bring you to the Menu page.

Also at the bottom of the main page is a section called “Today’s Specials.” While this section does not link to another page (logically I would think it would link to the Dishes page), it offers a small sampling of some of the dishes from the menus. Clicking on any of these dishes leads you to what is perhaps the most interesting part of What’s on the Menu?, a page that provides information about that dish, most of which is gleaned from the menus as transcribed by the public (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Individual dish page.
Figure 6. Individual dish page.

The left side of the page shows the lowest and highest prices for that item and the earliest and latest date that the dish appears on one of the menus. There is also a placement map illustrating where on the menu the dish appears, which may illustrate the relative importance of the item. At the center is another very cool feature, a graph illustrating the frequency with which the item appeared on the menus by year, which can illuminate culinary trends over time. Beneath this are the thumbnails of the menus on which the item appears, which of course link to the full menu. The right side of the page has a list of related dishes to account for slight stylistic differences in naming, word order, and punctuation on the various menus. Finally, at the bottom left is a “more information” section which offers a series of links outside of What’s on the Menu for a variety of additional information related to your dish of choice, including images, recipes, books, restaurants currently offering that dish on their menu, and “general information” with links to Google, Wikipedia, and Twitter.

Overall, the What’s on the Menu? project is pretty interesting. Looking through the old menus provides a fascinating glimpse at history, and not just in terms of menu offerings and their prices at various points in time. Many of the menus are themselves beautiful examples of artwork. They also represent not only traditional restaurant menus, but also transportation menus (rail, train, and plane) and banquet menus for special events. In looking through the website, one imagines that there is quite a bit of cultural history to be learned from these artifacts.

There are of course limitations to the database as well. More than half of NYPL’s existing menu collection remains to be digitized, cataloged, and transcribed, and the sampling of menus is by no means scientific. The collection is primarily although not exclusively focused on New York City; indeed, there are menus from around the world in the collection. While food trends certainly vary over time, they vary from region to region as well. But even for New York City, one wonders how representative the menu collection as a whole is. More than half of the collection was amassed by a single NYPL employee in the period from 1900 through 1924. Coverage of the years before and after that time period cannot be nearly as comprehensive as it is for those 25 years. One wonders too if upper class, high-end establishments and events are wildly overrepresented in the database. In addition, the library currently is not capturing section headings, which would be useful in classifying dishes (appetizer, main course, salad, dessert, etc.). Also, non-food information such as descriptions of artwork, marginalia, and other menu text that does not represent a food, beverage, or smoking item are also currently not being captured in the record, making it easier to concentrate on developing the food database but potentially limiting other cultural information that could be gleaned from the collection. Given these limitations, historians should exercise extreme caution and avoid overgeneralizations when drawing conclusions from this dataset.

I feel that a few web site improvements might enhance the user experience of What’s on the Menu? While the color scheme such as it is (the page is actually mostly white space and black text) is attractive enough, I don’t believe that the sort of light olive green color used to denote links stands out enough, particularly on the section headings for “Help Review” and “Explore” on the main page.  I also do not understand why the “Map Our Menus!” and “Today’s Specials” section titles are not hyperlinks. On the menu pages, the “Submit for Review” and “Mark as Done” links were not very obvious to me at all; it might be better to make these into colored buttons, similar to the “Help Transcribe” button on the main page. I’m also not sure how the user would know from looking at the menu page whether or not that menu had been geotagged.

The Help section I thought was clear and well-written, and on the menu pages for transcription and review, there is a small, red button-like area that the user can point at for brief instructions for how to complete the task at hand, which was also good. However, you must keep your cursor pointed at this red area in order to read the instructions and there is no way that I found to either keep that box displayed or to scroll down to see what’s in the bottom part of the box if your computer does not display the whole thing, as mine did not. I found that aspect to be quite frustrating, although fortunately the Help tab on the page header is directly above the red help area and the task is quite easy to learn and remember, so the need for that quick help section should be minimal. Finally, they do have a blog with a few interesting discussions about some of the materials in the collection, but sadly it has not been updated since 2013.

In terms of the crowdsourcing aspect of the project, I think What’s on the Menu? illustrates both the benefits and to a certain extent the pitfalls of relying upon anonymous volunteers to create metadata for a database like this. NYPL has actually had a great response to this project, with 22,000 menu items transcribed in the first three days of the project and more than 800,000 dishes in the first year. Crowdsourcing the transcription of menu items has enabled NYPL to move forward with the database while reserving paid staff labor for presumably more complex archival tasks. As tasks go, the transcription, where visitors are asked to enter each item (essentially) exactly as it appears on the menu, is pretty easy. I saw very few typographical errors of menu information. There will, however, be a good deal of data cleanup required to standardize some of the dishes for spelling and punctuation differences between menus, although this would be an issue whether the labor was crowdsourced or not.

Given that there are currently only four menus available for transcription, it would seem that the digitization of the menus may not be keeping up with the volunteers’ appetite to complete the transcriptions. Another issue with the crowdsourcing is the misinterpretation of the prices on the older menus. The four menus currently open for transcription are all from Adam’s Restaurant in 1913. Most of the prices, even for the steaks, are expressed in cents, not dollars, which may not be obvious to a casual user who may not be thinking historically. On at least two of the four menus, many of the prices were transcribed as dollars rather than cents. Such errors can be easily fixed by another person both at the transcription and review stages, but if they reach the done stage in this state, then someone must first notice the error and then email a staff member to correct it. Another drawback, at least with these four menus, is that they have a high number of menu items. With so many entries, the check marks get cluttered on the page and it becomes easy to miss menu items. Also, transcribers skip around the menu, preferring to start with a fresh menu section rather than finish an incomplete one, making omissions more likely if the person who finally clicks on the “Ready for Review” link does not look over the menu carefully.

Overall though, I don’t think that there’s much that the volunteer transcriber could do to really mess up this database. There should be at least one other pair of eyes looking over all of the transcribed data for errors and omissions, so I think the likelihood of any major errors making it in to the completed data would be quite low. All three tasks that users are invited to participate in—transcription, review, and geotagging—are easy, and I actually had fun and felt like I was doing something useful when I engaged in these activities. To me, What’s on the Menu? appears to be a historical project ideally suited to the crowdsourcing concept. Do you agree? Tell us your thoughts about What’s on the Menu? and the idea of crowdsourcing labor on digital history projects in general in the comments.


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