Around the Table Podcast: Historical Recipes in the Digital Age with Elaine Harrington

By Sarah Peters Kernan

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In this episode, Sarah Kernan speaks to Elaine Harrington, Special Collections Librarian at University College Cork about Historical Recipes in the Digital Age. This project was created by a partnership between UCC Special Collections and Digital Learning and relied on the contributions of staff and students to shape and analyze the project. To stay up-to-date with UCC Library Special Collections & Archives, follow @UCCLibrary and @theriversideUCC on Twitter and UniversityCollegeCorkLibrary on Facebook.

Music

Frédéric Chopin, Etude Op. 10, no. 5 in G flat major

Provided by Musopen.org through Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0

Historical Recipes in the Digital Age Project Team

Elaine Harrington, Special Collections Librarian (@walkerabroad)

Emma Horgan, Library Archivist (@emshorgan24)

Stephanie Chen, Digital Learning Specialist (@iamstephanie_c)

Cara Long and David Leen, student workers in Digital Learning, UCC Library 

Kian O’Mahony, student on internship in Special Collections & Archives

Manuscript Sources

UCC Library Special Collections Manuscripts U.59, U.295, and U.368

Project Resources

Patrick O’Dwyer (2019) “HI6091: Work Placement in Special Collections (2019).” The River-side. 

Elaine Harrington and Emma Horgan (2022) “Pi Day and Historical Recipes.” The River-side.   

Kian O’Mahony (2022) “Work Placement and Historical Research Skills in Action.” The River-side.  

Cara Long and David Leen (2022) “Reflection on the Use of Scalar.” The River-side.  

Stephanie Chen and Elaine Harrington (2022) “Remaking the printed word in the digital age.” Poster Presentation at 87th IFLA World Library and Information Congress, Dublin, Ireland 25-28 July 2022 and complementary interactive website.

Elaine Harrington (2023) “From Books to Bytes: Transforming Access to the Printed Word in the Digital Age.” Poster Presentation at BOBCATSSS 2023: A New Era – Exploring the Possibilities and Expanding the Boundaries, Oslo Metropolitan University, Oslo, Norway.  25-27 July 2023.  

Elaine Harrington (2023) “Remaking the Printed Word in the Digital Age.” An Leabharlann: The Irish Library, 32 (1): 4-9. 

Mentioned in the Show

Historical Recipes in the Digital Age

George Boole

Scalar

#PiDay and #PieDay

Transkribus

Snails in Recipes

National Folklore Collection

Transcript

Sarah Kernan 00:08

This is Around the Table, a new podcast from the Recipes Project. I’m your host, Sarah Kernan. Together, we will learn about exciting scholars, professionals, projects, resources, and collections focused on historical recipes.

Today I’m speaking to Elaine Harrington, Special Collections Librarian at University College Cork. She was part of the team who created Historical Recipes in the Digital Age, a digital project based on manuscript recipes in UCC Library Special Collections. Elaine, thank you so much for joining me today.

Elaine Harrington 00:46

Not at all. Thank you for having me.

Sarah Kernan 00:49

Could you begin by telling us a bit about Historical Recipes in the Digital Age? What exactly is part of this digital project and how is it connected to University College Cork?

Elaine Harrington 01:01

Sure. So Historical Recipes in the Digital Age is a digital publication. You can consider it an exhibition, where apart from the introduction, you can dive right in and maneuver around. That is, it doesn’t necessarily have a linear flow to it. And we look at primary sources of three manuscript recipe books from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. These are Irish recipe books, but written in English as opposed to written in the Irish language. They’re held in Special Collections and here in UCC Library, which is how we have easy access to them. And the excerpts from them form the basis of the Scalar instance which is where we host Historical Recipes of the Digital Age. So, the project is a combination of images of the recipes, textual transcriptions of the recipes, visual visualizations based on those textual transcriptions, and then combinations that are not so readily identifiable if you were looking solely at the paper version. In addition, we’ve included some contextual information about Cork from a postcard collection that’s held in the Archive Service in UCC Library. So it’s a good way to get lots of different parts of our collection into an online digital setting.

Recipe from U.295, Special Collections, UCC Library. Photo courtesy Elaine Harrington.

Sarah Kernan 02:29

Well, could you speak a bit about how you and anyone else from the project team actually came up with the idea for this project? And could you also tell us more about the project team, too?

Elaine Harrington 02:39

So, when I started thinking about this question initially, I thought about the project team, but I realized that it originated, my interested in recipe books, around 2014, 2015. And this was when the university celebrated the year of the life of George Boole. And George Boole is the person for whom Boolean Algebra is named, which is big in libraries, or if you’ve ever done AND, OR, NOT searching. Um, he was the first professor of mathematics here in the university and he’s someone really important at the heart of the university, and the library that I’m based in is named for him. And as part of the celebrations for his year, they wanted to introduce the contextual information about what had happened in his life, so they included food and Cork. And one of the recipes that they looked at was college pudding, which is a kind of a rice pudding that’s boiled. And it’s not very nice even when you dolly it up with syrup, but it came from one of the recipe books, and that made me think that there’s always a way for food in particular to have interest to pretty much everyone. It’s one of those universals. Then in 2019, there was a student who as part of a work placement for a postgraduate history module, Skills for Medieval Historians, he came and he worked on that same manuscript recipe book.

Elaine Harrington 04:10

His background was a chef so we thought that he would be familiar with some of the food terms, but he had difficulty reading some of the handwriting from the eighteenth- and nineteenth- century recipe books. But he was used to the terms that were used. And from there we moved into thinking how could we use some of the recipe books in different ways. And then the pandemic happened and suddenly we had no more in-person access from March 2020 to July 2020, and then over the next year access was so much more restricted that we had to find ways to bring our collections into a digital environment. Around about the same time, about May 2021, a digital learning specialist was hired in UCC Library, and that’s Stephanie Chen. And over the next year, she and I started collaborating together on a series of projects of which this Historical Recipes in the Digital Age was one. And it was a great way to get our content into a space, but I wasn’t the only one who had to do all parts of the project, and who had made for greater collaboration and interactivity across the different parts of the library service. So we wanted to have both enhancing access to the collections, learning new technologies, but also a really important part within UCC is our connected curriculum, where students are co-creators, co-researchers, and they learn lots of new skills. So for us to have student partners, that was key.

Elaine Harrington 05:45

So the project team was myself, Special Collections librarian; Stephanie Chen, the digital learning specialist; there were two undergraduate students, Cara Long and David Leen, who were studying law and business information systems, who worked on Stephanie on a series of digital projects including this one; a postgraduate student who is working with me on a work placement portfolio module, Kian O’Mahony; and Emma Horgan, one of the Library archivists. And she came in later the project where both she and I started to try our hand at making some of the recipes and it wasn’t always successful. So that’s the project where we came up with the idea and the project team.

Sarah Kernan 06:28

That’s wonderful. I love how diverse the group of people and interests and contributions are from everyone on the team. That’s wonderful, especially the input from students, too.

Elaine Harrington 06:46

Yeah.

Sarah Kernan 06:46

Could you talk a little bit about Scalar, for anyone, in particular, who’s not familiar with that platform. How did you decide to use it, and did you use any other projects as inspiration, whether or not they were born on Scalar or not?

Elaine Harrington 07:05

Sure. So, during the pandemic, I wrote a blog post on WordPress. This is The River-side, which is Special Collections’ and Archives’ main communication tool for longer-form pieces than tweets. So, the post I wrote was on an eighteenth-century Cork library, a charity school, and the library was donated to the university in the early 1990s. I had looked at visualizations limited on what Google could do for me. Between places of publication, who is the donor, the different types of books that were present, overlapping items with other things in the collection, but it was actually really limited between what was the tools available on WordPress, the plugins that were available to me, and then looking at, say, Google Maps as a way of creating some of those visualizations, so I was eager to see what else was out there. In searching for it, I came across Scalar and some other annotation tools like Hypotheses. But again, there was so much going on during the pandemic. It was, it’s too much for one person to do on their own.

Elaine Harrington 08:14

In the summer of ’21, I participated in the American Library Association International Librarians networking program which is the initiative of one of their roundtables, and it allows participants to form a collaborative relationship with someone else for four months at a time, and the intention is that you can continue to network with that person if you so choose. The person I was partnered with was Dr. Win Shih, who is Director of Integrated Library Systems at the University of Southern California, and we were both interested in emerging technologies. So, he was telling me about some of the different technologies being done in the University of Southern California and he mentioned Scalar, and they were actually the ones who created it. I had come across Scalar already, so I was hugely interested and I asked him lots and lots of questions about how he found it. So, he passed me on to the Special Collections team and their actual technology people so that when I suggested to Stephanie that we could use Scalar, not to replace WordPress but to sit alongside it to do things that weren’t possible on the blogging site, we already had an entry in. At the time, I think so many people were pursuing Scalar as an option. So, it was really handy to have had that personal connection.

Elaine Harrington 09:35

I could see from their Special Collections site the things that they had used it for. Alice Online: The Works and World of Lewis Carroll, A History of Photography in USC Libraries Collections, and these were things that we could then explore ourselves and go yes, we like that item, we can see how we can use it for not just the blog post that I had done on the Cork charity school but lots of other things. It was far more interactive than what the WordPress could be. It was also important that the tool was open source and web-based so that we could access this anywhere, and they gave us options about did we want a registration key and it would be hosted on the USC site, or did we want to self-host, the source code is all available on GitHub. Or you could use a different site. They suggested one called Reclaim Hosting and they offer Scalar as an option as an option rather for their hosting packages. But because we were so new to it, we said we would start low-key first and ask them to host it and we would have an access through a password and username, etc. So that’s probably enough for that part.

Sarah Kernan 10:48

Wonderful. Well, you’ve talked a little bit about, in terms of the project team, how staff and students have been involved in the creation of Historical Recipes. Has input into the project been tied to coursework, or has it been totally independent of that? Could you just talk a little bit about how it’s actually integrated into courses and learning?

Elaine Harrington 11:16

So, it actually stands independent of courses and learning. We decided to do the first iteration of it by linking it to Pi Day, which is three point one four so fourteenth of March.

Sarah Kernan 11:31

We are very familiar at the Recipes Project with it!

Elaine Harrington 11:33

And yeah, of course I’m saying it to the wrong people! So, I had seen it come up on Twitter and I thought this is a great combination of mathematics and recipes, plenty of collaboration with different groups who might not think of recipes necessarily. And so we specifically picked, we don’t really have pies in Ireland, so I widened it out to baking in general, and then widened it out again to maybe like syrups or frosting or the like. We took an expansive view of what pie was. So I selected which recipes and which recipe books to use. I showed all the students that were involved in the project all the different recipe books, what they look like, then we, I scanned the items uploaded them to a OneDrive folder that we had access to and they immediately knew that they wanted to work only with the twentieth-century one because that was by far the easiest to read and required the least amount of transcription on their part. So, it already had the list of ingredients. They didn’t have to create that themselves from, oh I see that they mentioned gooseberries here, I should add gooseberries to my ingredients list. So, a lot of the detective work was removed.

Elaine Harrington 12:54

Stephanie liaised with USC, and she set up the UCC instance, and then she worked with the students on figuring out how Scalar worked. Emma came in towards the end of the project when she and I started making the recipes specifically for Pi Day. Only one of the students was involved in doing coursework and that was the student who worked with me while he was on placement, but he also worked on a series of other projects, so this wasn’t the sole focus. Every year UCC Library hires various student workers, whether for invigilation, shelving, data entry, and two of them came on board to work with Stephanie on a range of digital projects which included 3D scanning of objects, creating 360 degree tours based on mapping of historical advertisements in eighteenth-century Cork and newspapers, and creating a coloring book for #ColorOurCollections. Um, they were involved in lots of other projects as well over the course of the eight months, but those were the ones that they also had input from Special Collections on. The intent was to return to the project again this year for Pi Day, but you know the way of it, other projects pop up in the way. But it is a resource we intend to return to, and I never did get back to pushing, transferring the blog post of the eighteenth-century Cork charity school into Scalar, so I have to do that separately.

Sarah Kernan 14:18

Well, this project is different than a site with complete digitized manuscripts or recipes collections, and it’s obviously quite different than looking at the physical objects, the original physical books. Could you talk about the value of working with these kinds of digital images and what skills students developed to work with these recipes. You’ve already mentioned some of the challenges that they encountered in terms of reading the handwriting and transcribing them, coming up with the list of ingredients, for example…

Elaine Harrington 14:51

Yes.

Sarah Kernan 14:52

But what are other skills that they might have acquired during this process?

Elaine Harrington 14:58

So, if I start with how it’s different from the original. So, with the digital projects, we should be mindful of what is omitted. For example, with the recipes in Historical Recipes in the Digital Age, I have scanned around the recipe itself rather than seeing the full page, so we don’t know the person who wrote the recipe did they think, ooh Apple Charlotte, I also want to put in Apple Cake so that the two of those would be side by side. That part of it is now missing from the site itself. All of the recipe books had inserts and those weren’t scanned, but if you were looking for a specific Apple Charlotte recipe, then you would spot it if you were looking at the physical item. And then two of the recipe books have indexes that were created by a series of people over a number of years. We didn’t transfer those over. And there’s also newspaper cuttings on the front of one for everything from tips for burns and skulls, or diphtheria, how to mend broken china, and simple disinfectant. So they’re not recipe books, it’s also folk cures and a whole range of other things. Some of the challenges, I had mentioned the handwriting is the most obvious but I think it’s the food terms, for how much has food changed in the last one hundred years. The students had never heard of dripping, which is a type of fat, and I had to explain that to them. They had never considered that beef tea could be used for colds. Why wouldn’t you have access to all of the different, you know, pharmaceutical pills that we would have now.

Elaine Harrington 16:44

They really didn’t like the handwriting. We keep coming back to it, but it’s something that the history department and UCC have also noted and they’re specifically creating different modules to accustom students to get used to handwriting because we write so much less now. But the students involved were business and law students, so they wouldn’t have those modules in the same way that Arts Humanities students would. So it was really interesting seeing their perspective on that. As part of the summing up of their presence on the projects. We asked them like what could you say that would be useful to other students who might be considering but don’t have a background in Arts and Humanities. So, they said they really liked working on the variety of projects, how they learned new skills which would further assist them post-college. These were undergraduate students. They developed digital fluency and greater experience in different technology types. They became more capable in troubleshooting technical problems whether it was software, or 3D printers, not specifically used on this project but on others, and they became more comfortable with adapting to new types of technologies, and we talked about that as well at the start before we started chatting about this. They enjoyed using Scalar to create an interactive and virtual book to display historical recipes. And they enjoyed deciphering the handwritten recipes, as challenging as it was, and they found it really rewarding then to input them into Scalar.

Elaine Harrington 18:15

They found the process of learning and navigating their way through Scaler more challenging and inconsistent than they thought it would be. They thought that it wasn’t an intuitive tool, which is why the project itself took longer than expected. But they had also used H5P which they preferred. So, the personal preferences really showed up. But they did, they really did like using Scalar in different ways. And I think that’s something that all of us need to be mindful for, because you think that people are these digital natives and I use that with caution. That they are more comfortable with stick them in front of a digital tool they’ve never seen it before and they get going and I think for them as well to know that there is this learning curve is definitely worthwhile in learning at that point.

Recipe from U.295, Special Collections, UCC Library. Photo courtesy Elaine Harrington.

Sarah Kernan 19:07

Well, you’ve hinted a bit that you’d like to add a bit more to the Scalar site and grow it a little bit. Could you speak to that a bit and could you also talk about how this project may have influenced any other projects that have gone on at UCC?

Elaine Harrington 19:28

So, at the moment we would be aiming to work towards Pi Day 2024. It’s hard to believe it’s coming up so fast. But also to grow it out and I mentioned that there are lots of other different things included in the historical recipe books, so to focus on some of those folklore cures, or to look at things that were unexpected. For example, there’s a recipe for curry powder. Which I wouldn’t have expected in the middle of the nineteenth-century recipe book. But then I must remember that Cork was a port city as part of the British Empire and there are the influences from other parts of the then British Empire and which are brought to bear on that recipe book. How has it influenced other things. We’re exploring other tools such as Transkribus to um, almost shortcut handwriting in a way, but we need a significant body of work for that to be possible. And the Archives Section within the Library are working with the History Department for those history students to learn different ways of looking at letter forms and thinking, okay, so that’s that, this is how I do that. But those are really good for anyone who are in Arts Humanities departments and not anyone else and that’s one of the challenges we find in the Library Association of Ireland where books group, where there isn’t, where books courses taught within many of our universities. How do you bring on the next group of librarians like myself who might not have as much familiarity with handwriting either. I sound like I’m mentioning only handwriting when there were so many other different challenges to focus on. But if you can’t read what the content is about then it’s a really limiting factor. No matter how much people are interested in food, and we’re so much used to the printed word now, that it really is quite the challenge.

Sarah Kernan 21:34

Absolutely, absolutely. If other institutions are considering similar projects in scale or in theme or scope to yours or instructors are considering devising similar digital projects for their courses, what sort of advice would you provide to them?

Elaine Harrington 21:57

Sure. So, new digital tools aren’t always as easy or intuitive no matter our level of familiarity with digital tools, in general. With each new technology, there is a learning curve and time to master that should be factored in. But also consideration of what else you’ve going on either in the students’ lives or in your own life. As I mentioned, Pi Day 2023 didn’t happen this year for that very reason. If you have other resources available like transcriptions of recipes from previous projects then reuse them. There’s no point reinventing the wheel unnecessarily. But as a positive, we reach the highest number of potential users in such a short space of time, we’ve created a variety of different resources as part of the project. So, there’ve been two posters at different international conferences. We have an interactive website so that you can see the Scalar project alongside all the other projects that was created at the same time, there’s been a journal article and four different blog posts associated with recipes and how we use them. So already we have this tremendous body of work where we can really showcase what is possible with what is seemingly such a small activity.

Sarah Kernan 23:20

Recipe from U.295, Special Collections, UCC Library. Photo courtesy Elaine Harrington.

Final question. Do you have any favorite recipes from the manuscripts in the project and are there any features in the manuscripts that you think are really ripe for scholarly attention?

Elaine Harrington 23:33

So, for Pi Day I chose to make the afternoon teacake recipe in part because I thought it would be easy and fast to make and it was. But also it was easy to follow, unlike the one for lemon filling which went horribly, horribly wrong. It still tasted nice, but I couldn’t use it for what I had intended which was to put between the two afternoon teacakes and kind of create a sandwich. It was far too liquidy for that in the end. And the second question sorry again was…

Sarah Kernan 24:03

Are there any features in the manuscripts that you think are really ripe for scholarly attention?

Elaine Harrington 24:08

Yes, absolutely. So I touched on that earlier, the different combinations of recipes for cures for diphtheria, or mending china, but there’s also one, and I can’t condone it, for using snails to do something else. It’s a very odd little cutting, but we have this large collection in Ireland called the National Folklore Collection. A lot of it is already available online. And I think there are lots of synergies between that collection and some of the folk cures that are present which aren’t typical recipes as we would expect to see them in modern cookbooks but were definitely part and parcel of the tradition of manuscript recipe books. So I think there is something there and also because the National Folklore Collection where a lot of the contributions have been in the Irish language. So for here these recipe books they’re all in English, which is open to far more users than would be otherwise.

Sarah Kernan 25:15

Elaine, thank you again for joining me today to talk about this great project, Historical Recipes in the Digital Age.

Elaine Harrington 25:22

Thank you so much for having me, Sarah. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Sarah Kernan 25:27

Thanks to everyone for listening today. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast so you never miss an episode! I’ll see you again next time on Around the Table.



Cite this blog post
Sarah Kernan (2023, June 22). Around the Table Podcast: Historical Recipes in the Digital Age with Elaine Harrington. The Recipes Project. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/tddi

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