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Historical Menu Project


The New York Public Library has launched an ambitious new program called What's on the Menu? to transcribe thousands of historical menus from their vast collection. The menus have already been scanned and are available to researchers. But they have not been transcribed.

The transcriptions will provide a valuable research tool for the individuals who use this collection, including historians, chefs, novelists and food enthusiasts. The collection contains about 40,000 menus. The earliest examples are from the 1840s.

OCR – or Optical Character Recognition –is typically used to transcribe many scanned documents, but this technology is not useful to transcribe most of the menus. Some are handwritten. Others use fancy fonts that are not recognizable to OCR software. Human eyes must read each dish on the menu in order to transcribe it.

The New York Public Library has opened the project to anyone who wants to help. Simply visit menus.nypl.org to get started. Click on the first letter of a line of text on the menu and type what you see. It’s that easy!

The project records one dish at a time – with prices. Once you have transcribed a line, a green check mark will appear. When every line has been transcribed, the entire menu is submitted for review.

What’s on the Menu? could serve as a model for future transcription projects at libraries, museums, and archives across the country and around the world. There are treasure troves of historical documents that are currently inaccessible because of limited staff time and budgets for extensive digitization projects.

Simply digitizing an archival collection is not enough. Even a photograph collection needs to be organized and classified for research purposes. Historical documents need full transcriptions in order to be fully accessible. Special collections where OCR technology is not useful require even more time and money to complete. Libraries and museums often don’t have the staffing to dedicate enough time to projects like these. Using the public to help is a great way to expand the staff and stay under budget.

Next time you’re surfing the web with nothing to do, consider “wasting” some time helping the New York Public Library with this amazing project. Your time will be well spent!
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Content copyright © 2014 by Kim Kenney. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Kim Kenney. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Kim Kenney for details.

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