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.