First Monday Library Chat: University of Iowa’s DIY History

Welcome back! Today I’m speaking with Jen Wolfe, Digital Scholarship Librarian at the University of Iowa, and one of the key organizers of DIY History – a UI Library initiative to crowdsource transcriptions of their digitized special collections.

DIY History includes several manuscript collections, from Civil War diaries to transcontinental railroad letters. What was the impulse behind the creation of DIY History? How did you decide on which collections to include?

In 2011, the UI Libraries had just finished a two-year scanning initiative of Civil War manuscripts to mark the sesquicentennial. While brainstorming ways to publicize the digital collection, our head of Special Collections mentioned a recent conference session he had seen on transcription crowdsourcing. We decided to try it out as an experiment, and it was so successful, we’ve pretty much reshaped most of our scanning and digital library workflows, along with a good chunk of our Special Collections acquisitions budget, around crowdsourcing.

When choosing a collection to add to DIY History, we look for materials in our holdings that are: (a) handwritten; (b) historically significant; (c) interesting ; and (d) extensive. It also helps when items are old enough that we don’t have to worry about copyright or donor privacy issues.

DIY History, the University of Iowa’s transcription crowdsourcing site
DIY History, the University of Iowa’s transcription crowdsourcing site

Of course I’m most interested in the Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks collection, which spans the US and Europe from the 1600s through 1960s. Why did your project team decide to include these historical recipe books?

Once volunteers completed transcriptions for all the material in our Civil War Diaries and Letters project, we closed down the site and made plans to expand it as DIY History. While we knew we’d be adding more personal narratives from other time periods, we also wanted to try something different, so we decided early on to showcase the handwritten cookbooks in our Szathmary collection. We knew having full-text access to those recipes would be very useful for food historians and other scholars, plus we anticipated interest from the general public as well – many people grow up in households where such handwritten recipes get passed down from generation to generation. Plus there’s the gross-out factor – most of us aren’t going to rush home and cook up some brain hash or turtle stew, but it’s fun to read about.

How did the University of Iowa acquire its collection of historical recipe books? Are you continuing to collect in this subject area?

Louis Szathmary (1919-1996) was a well-known Chicago chef and bibliophile – he’s featured in A Gentle Madness, Nicholas Basbane’s landmark examination of the subject. He donated his culinary collection of approximately 20,000 items – manuscript and published cookbooks, as well as pamphlets, menus, and related ephemera – to the University of Iowa beginning in the early 1980s; it now takes up an entire room in the library known as the Chef Room. Szathmary selected Iowa based on his relationship with our Conservator, William Anthony, also a well-known figure in the book world. Anthony had been Szathmary’s bookbinder in Chicago before he moved to Iowa, so the Chef knew his collection would be well taken care of with us.

Since Szathmary’s donation almost instantly established the UI as a major research center in the culinary arts, it has become a top collecting focus. According to Special Collections Librarian Patrick Olson, the department buys large lots of cookbooks and related materials at auction – both eBay and IRL – and from rare book dealers. We also receive quite a few donations. Recently we’ve been branching out into acquiring recipe boxes, which are the 20th century version of handwritten cookbooks. Pretty much all of the English-language handwritten cookbooks have been digitized – i.e. the Irish, English, and American series listed on the collection guide – and we do add new items as they’re acquired.

The Art of Cookery, 1760s |  Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts, University of Iowa Special Collections
The Art of Cookery, 1760s | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts, University of Iowa Special Collections

I love that transcription volunteers can easily access a digitized manuscript page in just a few clicks without a log-in. You then offer only three basis tips to deal with misspelled words, formatting, and illegible handwriting. What are the pros and cons of listing only a few guidelines?

One of the main goals with DIY History has always been to keep the barrier for participation low, so a conscious decision was made to not require a log-in or a lot of navigation to get to the transcription screen, and we didn’t want to intimidate people with highly detailed rules. The more conscientious users can follow a link to further tips, and we do field the occasional email query on how to proceed with a particularly challenging bit of handwriting. But mainly we just encourage people to take their best guess, since any access is better than none at all. Users are also reassured to hear that their work will be reviewed, and that the transcriptions will be associated with the digitized page image as part of its permanent metadata record, so scholars will always have the option of comparing.

How do you check the transcriptions for accuracy?

The review process has evolved along with the project. An early version of the site required quite a bit of manual labor on the part of staff, cutting and pasting emailed transcriptions into our digital library software on the back end. This slowly morphed into proofreading and copyediting, but we didn’t have enough staff to keep up with the volume of submissions and it felt contrary to the spirit of the project. Switching to Scripto, an open-source transcription tool developed at George Mason University, has been instrumental in letting us streamline the process and put greater trust in the crowd. User contributions appear live on the site immediately, and there are mechanisms that allow anyone to review and edit a submission, while deputy users with elevated security can give final approval and lock down a record. These deputies are drawn from our pool of “power users” who have demonstrated a high level of skill and dedication to the project.

Since the site launched in spring 2011, over 38,000 pages have been transcribed – wow! Do you know who’s doing most of the transcribing?

There’s a wide range of participation on the site, with anonymous users contributing only a page or two, to classroom exercises of twenty new users submittting exactly two pages each, to registered users submitting lots more. I mentioned “power users” above – DIY History follows the pattern of most crowdsourcing sites, with a small minority of users doing a large majority of the work.

I’ve corresponded most frequently with David, a volunteer in Fresno who’s a retired professor of history. Like most of our power users, he keeps us on our toes, letting us know when pages are out of order, if items are misdated, etc. He’s put in long hours working on the diaries of a woman named Iowa Byington Reed, who wrote brief entries nearly every day from 1873 to 1936.

I heard you guys hosted a Cooking Club, where you asked people to try recreating the recently transcribed recipes. What kind of responses did you get?

Yes! The Historic Foodies club is organized by Special Collections Librarian Colleen Theisen, who hosts a meeting once a month based around a certain type of recipe or time period – e.g. soups, pies, the food of “Downton Abbey” – and members recreate a relevant recipe from the Szathmary manuscripts. It’s a small but dedicated group (approximately six to twelve attendees per meeting) of cooking fans, campus museum staff, and current and former librarians. A favorite event among club members has been their outing to the Iowa State Fair, where the UI hosted a historic recipe cooking contest based on the Szathmary collection. Actually, our student newspaper just made a video about the club.

Front cover illustration, American cookbook, 1920s | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts, University of Iowa Special Collections
Front cover illustration, American cookbook, 1920s | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts, University of Iowa Special Collections

Many academic and professional historians with research interests closely related to DIY History will read this blog interview. Can you offer us any usage tips? How can we help you?

We would love to get more people using the transcriptions. The crowdsourced data is periodically migrated to the digital cookbooks’ permanent home in the Iowa Digital Library, but unfortunately we have work to do to make that interface more user-friendly. For up-to-date and easy-to-navigate search results, using Google’s site restriction functionality works best; e.g. a Google query for “tongue site:diyhistory.lib.uiowa.edu” retrieves nearly 300 results.

We would also encourage any instructors to consider using the site as a method to teach students about research with primary sources. Crowdsourcing projects can make for an easy way to experiment with digital humanities in the classroom. From the feedback we’ve received, students using DIY History especially appreciate the feeling that their work is making a real contribution to scholarship.

Thanks, Jen! If you’d like to get in touch with DIY History, please do so via their contact page. For inquiries about the First Monday Library Chat, please contact Michelle DiMeo.


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