Check Please! Crowdsourcing the Menu at the NYPL

New York Public Library
NY Public Library (Photo:Austin_YeahBaby)

The New York Public Library has a fascinating menu collection of over 45,000 menus dating from the 1840s to the present. It is one of the largest collections in the world and according to their website, it is “used by historians, chefs, novelists and everyday food enthusiasts.” They have scanned about a quarter of the collection and those images are available online. They can be searched by date but everyone wants to be able to search those menus by dish, ingredients, price, and presentation. It would represent an extremely useful database of information.

How are they making that happen? The NYPL is crowdsourcing the job. They have invited the public to go in online, select a menu and transcribe it. As they put it “We’ve built a simple tool that makes the transcribing pretty easy to do, but it’s a big job, so we need your help.” They could scan using OCR (optical character recognition) except that many of the early menus are hand written, use old ornate fonts, or old, “idiosyncratic layouts” that make accurate reading by scanners difficult. Besides that, they still need the information to be categorized in a database and spell-checked, something that would have to be done by hand any way.

If you want to help, you can go to their website and just click on the Help Transcribe button. To follow the project or learn more, you can email them at

Note: There is a list of crowdsourcing projects that Susan Robbins posted on the LIS 653-02 Student Discussion Blog.

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