Category Archives: Digital History

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.

A Halloween Round-Up

By Lisa Smith

I went a little wild with our Twitter account (@historecipes) on Halloween and ended up tweeting links to stories about magic, supernatural creatures, food and death all day. It was fun–and I learned a lot! If you fancy taking a peek at the dark side of history, here is the round-up of all the links. There’s something here for everyone to enjoy…

Just click here to go to our Storify page.

The witch of Endor conjures up the ghost of Samuel at the request of Saul, who lies petrified on the ground. Engraving by W. Raddon, 1811, after B. West. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
The witch of Endor conjures up the ghost of Samuel at the request of Saul, who lies petrified on the ground. Engraving by W. Raddon, 1811, after B. West. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Just who is this Johanna St. John?!?

By Elaine Leong

This week I have the honour of giving a talk at Lydiard House and Park near Swindon.  Until the beginning of the 20th century, Lydiard House and Park was the country estate of the St. John family.  Regular readers of this blog are, of course, already familiar with Johanna St. John and her late-seventeenth century recipe book.

Wellcome Western MS 4338. Image from Wellcome Library, London.

In the fall of 2012, Lisa Smith’s students at the University of Saskatchewan spent part of their semester transcribing Johanna’s book.  You might recall reading some of their blog posts in December. Over the last year or so, Lydiard House and Park’s archivist, Sophie Cummings, and her team of volunteers have also been hard at work transcribing Johanna’s book and in bringing Johanna’s medical activities to a modern audience through a play staged by a youth theatre group, family education events and evening talks.  At this point, you might well ask, who is this Johanna St. John and why does she merit so much attention?

Anon., Portrait of Lady Johanna St. John circa 1690, Image from Lydiard House and Park.

Johanna St. John, or Lady J as she is nicknamed by the Lydiard group, was the eldest daughter Oliver St. John, a prominent Parliamentarian and supporter of Oliver Cromwell. Johanna (1631-1705) married her distant cousin Sir Walter St. John, MP for Wootton Bassett and Wiltshire.  Their grandson, Henry the first Viscount Bolingbroke was a well-known politician, diplomatist and author.  During their marriage, Sir Walter and Lady Johanna divided their time between their mansion in Battersea and their country estate, Lydiard House near Swindon.  Remarkably, an extensive set of correspondence between Johanna and her Lydiard steward Thomas Hardyman has survived. These letters indicate that Lydiard Park, far from being simply a summer home for the St. Johns, supplied them with all sorts of foodstuffs from fruits, herbs and flowers grown in the gardens to cheeses, butter and poultry from the nearby farms.

Johanna’s letters are a fascinating read and provide a rare glimpse into the housewifely concerns of a late seventeenth-century gentlewoman. They paint a picture of an active household manager who expressed great interest and concern in various foodstuffs and homemade products (from butter to cheese to beer to distilled medicines) produced at Lydiard.  Not one to shy away from micromanagement, Johanna instructed Hardyman when to start fattening the turkeys and geese for Christmas feasts, berated him when he dared to send up unripe cheeses and gave him precise barley malt to hogshead ratios for the brewing of beer.  Most interestingly, the correspondence also reveals that Johanna was in the habit of sending recipes gathered from her London acquaintances to be made up at Lydiard Park where she relied on a team of expert distillers and herb gatherers. Johanna’s detailed instructions, including specific directions to contact local experts for particular ingredients, give a clear picture of how one gentlewoman can ‘make’ medicines via ‘remote control’.

An image of a woman distilling taking from the frontispiece of J.S., ‘The accomplished ladies rich closet of rarities’ (London, 1691).

When taken together, Johanna’s recipe book and letters reveal both complex networks of contemporary lay medical knowledge amongst family members and paints a vivid picture of medical activities in an early modern English country house. Our collective transcription of Johanna’s book renders the work electronically searchable and (very soon) widely available.  We hope that it goes one step towards analyzing and acknowledging the complex set of activities taken on by early modern housewives and, in Johanna’s case, her large crew of ‘helpers’.

Food History Panel Recordings from the Cookbook Conference

By Lisa Smith

In February, I attended the Roger Smith Cookbook Conference in New York. It was a fun conference, with a mix of academics and non-academics. A particular highlight, though, was realising that cookbook authors often bring samples of their food to panels! A delight in the case of cookies, though I’m sure the puppy water I discussed wouldn’t have gone down nearly so well.

The panels, for you recipe and cookbook afficionados, were all recorded and can be found at the conference home page. The panels below were the ones I found most interesting and, not surprisingly, primarily historical…

1. “Filling Our Hearts with Food and Gladness”: Christian Celebration and Food Traditions”

This insightful panel, which focused on medieval food and modern foods with religious origins, included Ken Albala (University of the Pacific), Anne Mendelson, Evelyn Birge Vitz (New York University) and Willam Woys Weaver.

2. “Wartime Cookbooks: Artifacts of Home Front Culture, Tools of Social Engineering, Narratives of Survival”

This was an exciting mix of junior and senior scholars, all of whom provided accounts of the complicated relationships between food, ideology, nationalism, and practice. The speakers included Kyri W. Claflin (Boston University), Barbara Rotger (Boston University), Diana Garvin (Cornell University, Ithaca NY), Ian Mosby (University of Guelph) and Amy Bentley (New York University).

3. “From Disgust to Delight: The Civilizing Influence of Recipes”

The main theme of the panel was how people in the West might be persuaded to incorporate insects into our diet. The panel began with the distribution of chocolate-covered insects, which I could not bring myself to eat despite the best will in the world. This thought-provoking panel raised more questions than it answered. e.g. is covering insects in chocolate really helpful in persuading people to eat insects as a staple food?

Tory Higgins was the final speaker and his argument ultimately failed to convince me. He focused on marketing and referred to successful government endeavours during World War Two–something that had been revealed as problematic during the “Wartime Cookbooks” panel. Speakers included Renee Marton (Institute of Culinary Education, New York), Tory Higgins (Columbia University),Kian Lam Kho, and Margaret Happel Perry.

I ended up speaking on two panels. The longer presentation was for “Personal Manuscript Cookbooks: What Do They Tell Us That Printed Cookbooks Do Not?”  Steve Schmidt provided an introduction, described his project The Manuscript Cookbooks Survey and gave an overview of what manuscript recipe books can tell us. Peter Rose’s talk, which begins at 23 minutes, discussed early modern Dutch recipes in New York.  Sandy Oliver (starts at 42 minutes) considered what she has learned from a number of manuscript recipe books. My own talk (1:02-1:19) was about why researchers should not overlook the medicinal recipes in collections.

In addition, I spoke for five minutes (from 25:20) during a “Digital Show and Tell”. I introduced the Textual Communities platform for teaching manuscript recipe transcription and the crowd-sourcing plans of Early Modern Recipes Online Collective. (See also my previous post for further details.) There are some other really interesting digital projects out there! One that caught my imagination was described by Jill Adams (Ph.D. student, CQ University Australia) about 20 minutes in: “The Cookbook in a Day Project“.

There were an intriguing selection of panels at the conference, allowing researchers and cookbook authors to think historically, culturally and practically about food. As an added bonus, the conference was also a great excuse to spend a few days in New York…