Rebecca Federman, Electronic Resources Coordinator and Culinary Collections Librarian, New York Public Library

Rebecca is co-curator of the “What’s On the Menu?” project, a website that invites audiences to transcribe the New York Public Library’s menu collection and build a seriously awesome culinary resource.

Rebecca spoke with us about crowdsourcing and described the many ways visitors use the website called  “What’s On the Menu?”


Rebecca has always been interested in New York City history, food research, and overall restaurant menus in general.  This inspiration in coordination with the NYPL Labs Team created the idea of the “What’s On the Menu?” project.


A couple years ago the NYPL Labs Team wanted to work on the food collection since many people have responded to the collection.  Over the years they noticed that people were coming to see the collection to look up specific dishes or foods, which led to searches getting more and more granular with the collection.   They collaborated with a team of designers, programmers, and curators who were familiar with the collections to create a crowdsource platform of menu transcriptions.  In other words, they wanted to digitize the menus in the collection so that they could ask online visitors to help transcribe them for the museum.  In the end, this would lead to a database of searchable dishes for the public to use on a daily basis. This project was launched April 18th, 2011 and at first used 10,000 already digitized menus of the collection, but these were transcribed very quickly.

 Two Main Goals

Goal 1:   Get all of the remaining menus digitized  so that more transcriptions can be done, which gives more data for researchers to use.

Goal 2:  Another goal would be to incorporate menus from other menu collections like Cornell University, the Los Angeles Public Library, or another institution that has menus, so that they could add other collections into the platform to give visitors the opportunity to research more menus that would reside all in one location.

People Love Food

We talked about how people did not need too much encouragement to participate in the beginning of these project.  The NYPL used Twitter and various social media websites to get people excited and involved.  Rebecca explained that people responded to the menus because they are documents from everyday life, the terms are all familiar to people, which makes it easy for them to do and overall people love food.

“The true measure of success is how it is used”

Since the NYPL does not require online visitors to register or create a log in to transcribe a menu, they are unable to capture who their users are or where they are from.  They only receive statistical information by using Google Analytics, which does provide a bit of granular information.  Through anecdotal evidence the NYPL assume that most of their users are power users.  These are a dozen or two dozen users that are very active on the site and they are the ones who will email the NYPL when there is a problem with the site, a menu is broken, or tell them that there are no more menus to transcribe.  These power users are the library’s metric.  Some users come because of boredom, but other users come after they have Googled a restaurant or hotel and were sent to the NYPL website based upon their research query.  The last typical users are the ones who are interested in menus and know that they can come to this site for research purposes , find a menu from a restaurant and get that information.

Listen to interview


  1. Solimar Salas says:

    I only wished I cooked more often! This is a fascinating project to engage the public with the NYPL collection. It is not surprising that with mostly social media marketing and little publicity by traditional ways the topic would be an attractive one to many. Crowdsourcing the transcriptions is a great way to also save money on employing someone to do this work as well as speeding up the availability of the information online. I can imagine how this project could have altered the book/movie “Julie & Julia”. Anthropologically speaking, this is a great way to advance research opportunities and conservation-wise it allows the NYPL to better preserve the menus by decreasing the handling of the original documents. I’ll be looking out for menus to transcribe. Great work!

  2. Rachel Pierson says:

    I find “Electronic Resources Coordinator” such an interesting title to belong in the Collections department! This project really puts Rebecca’s title in perspective for me. I was interested in particular in the sort of “test batch” of menus that had been transcribed by the public before. This is an excellent way to determine if a crowd-sourcing project will be successful or not without having to put a great deal of resources into putting an entire collection online. I’m happy to hear how successful this project has been and I’d like to see it done perhaps with other kinds of similar documents – maps, brochures, or maybe even old museum guides!

  3. Jennifer Kingsley says:

    I am struck by the fact that the project started with the library noticing a particular visitor interest and activity, and figured out a way both to be responsive to that activity, by creating a system to allow more search possibilities for the content, and to capitalize on that interest to invite the public to contribute to their effort. Even if, as with many crowd sourcing projects, a significant portion of contributors are power users, many others benefit and use the search features that are developed. That’s a pretty significant reach, and its amazing, because transcription is a somewhat boring activity, but yet people do it, because they are interested in the content more broadly.

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