Breaking Down Menus Digitally, Dish by Dish

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If you'd dined at the Sherman Square Hotel in New York City on May 31, 1937, you could have refreshed yourself with a sauerkraut-juice cocktail, moved on to cold soup in jelly, tucked into minced capon en crème or lamb's tongue with a side of potato salad, and finished off the meal with California figs in syrup or a nice slice of apple pie.

The Sherman Square no longer exists. It fell on hard times in the 1960s and was judged "tawdry" enough to raze in 1969 as part of the urban-renewal juggernaut. The dishes served up to the hotel's diners, however, live on at the New York Public Library, in a collection of 40,000 or so menus—many from New York City—that date from the 1840s to the present. Thanks to the power of crowdsourcing and a creative partnership between technology experts and curators, those menus are being posted online and transcribed for everyone to see and use.

The "What's on the Menu?" project is a powerful example of how a library can use technology to recruit members of the public to help it handle labor-intensive tasks, in this case transcribing thousands of dishes from digital copies of the menus posted on the project's Web site. But the benefits go far beyond free labor.

"It really is a proof of concept for making similar types of collections even more accessible," says Ann Thornton, the Andrew W. Mellon director of the New York Public Libraries. It's not just about "what fancy tools you can create," she says, "but how those tools facilitate knowledge and how to help the community use it."...

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