Some readers out there may wonder how libraries kept track of all their goodies before the advent of computerized catalogs. You had one of two options: You could either consult a giant wood cabinet with drawers jam-packed with little 3 x 5 cards or, better yet, you could consult a reference librarian who could lead you to treasure troves of information. Cultural institutions now make their collections available digitally for people who are unable to do on-site research; however, for those places that have been building up resources for a century or more, digitizing their holdings is an overwhelming game of catch-up that requires time and money.
Such is the case with the New York Public Library's menu collection, which contains approximately 26,000 pieces, about 10,000 of which have been digitally scanned. Specializing in the period between 1890 and 1920, the menus are especially useful to historians or chefs or authors—anyone trying to capture an era down to the dining details. One problem, however, is that it's difficult to present the digital images in such a way that people can do searches across the entire collection. Searches are an easy way to look at trends in dining, which food fell in—and out—of favor, price fluctuations and other information of that ilk. And it sure beats flipping through the collection menu by menu if there's only a nugget of information you're after.
Some purveyors of digital information—like Google books—use optical character recognition software to convert the printed page into digital, searchable text. But many of the Library's menus are handwritten or use ornamental typefaces that can't be easily read by computers. And really, when it comes to dining, presentation is everything—even when it comes to menu typography.
Flesh and blood transcribers really are the best way to get the job done, and now anyone with an internet connection can lend the library a helping hand. If you'd like to lend your services, and get a taste—intellectually speaking—of American cuisine from a bygone era and enjoy some really stunning works of art, go to the project's main site, select a menu that grabs you and dig in!