Category Archives: First Monday Library Chat

First Monday Library Chat: Folger Shakespeare Library

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC has one of the most significant collections of English Renaissance books and manuscripts in the world. Today I am talking with Dr. Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts.

As Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger, you oversee approximately 60,000 manuscripts, with the wide range of sources. What are some of your institutional priorities for the manuscript collection at this time?

Our institutional priorities are two-fold: grow the collection, and continue to make it more accessible.

To that end, our goal is to acquire manuscripts that provide a window into society in early modern England, and beyond that, any manuscript, typescript, or other unpublished item that relates to Shakespeare up to the present day. Before we purchase a manuscript, we always ask ourselves: What is its current or future research value? How does it relate to other manuscripts, books, and visual materials in the collection? Our collection development policy for manuscripts provides further detail.

Katherine Packer, fl. 1639 A book of very good medicines
MS V.a.387 – Katherine Packer, fl. 1639
A book of very good medicines

Accessibility involves every division at the Folger. Conservators regularly stabilize, mend, and conserve manuscripts so that readers can access them and the public can see them in exhibitions. Our Photography and Digital Imaging department adds new images of manuscripts to our digital image database on a weekly basis. Our Acquisitions department makes new acquisitions available as quickly as humanly possible. Our rare materials cataloger, Nadia Seiler, does a great job of describing manuscripts in Hamnet (our catalog) and in our finding aids database. Beyond that, we highlight manuscripts on a regular basis in our research blog, The Collation, and through other social media. Directors of Folger Institute seminars are always encouraged to use manuscripts in their classes, and in general, we talk about them whenever we are given the opportunity!

Congratulations on your IMLS grant for Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO)!  Can you give us a project overview and an update on where you’re at now?

Thank you — we were so excited and honored to receive the grant! EMMO is a project to transcribe all of our early modern English manuscripts and make them available in a searchable database alongside digital images and catalog records for each item. They will be keyword searchable, but also searchable by many other categories. A brief overview of EMMO can be found on the Folger’s research blog, The Collation. Of course, EMMO will include transcriptions of all of our receipt books, which we hope will really push research forward in a variety of ways.

We are still in the very early stages of the grant — hiring a project manager, two project paleographers, assessing the needs of our users, and talking to potential partners about software development.

Last month, I interviewed Jen Wolfe of the University of Iowa’s DIY History about crowdsourcing manuscript transcriptions. By comparison, the Folger is taking a more hands-on approach to crowdsourcing. I suppose this is partly because secretary hand can be very difficult to read, but can you talk a bit more about your thoughts on the training and standards required for transcribing?

I love DIY History, and I hope that our crowdsourcing platform is as successful! Our biggest challenge is figuring out a way to get the right manuscripts to the right transcribers. The majority of our early modern manuscripts are written in English secretary hand, which requires training in order to learn how to read accurately. There are plenty of good online paleography tutorials out there; in particular, the ones at Cambridge, the National Archives (UK), Scottish Handwriting, and a new one connected to Oxford’s Bodleian Library. English paleography is also taught at a number of places, including the Folger, the Huntington Library, and University of Virginia’s Rare Book School.

For EMMO, we are thinking about developing some sort of game with different levels–each time you get to a higher level, more manuscripts of increasing difficulty are made available to you to transcribe. Obviously, the number of “citizen humanists” we attract will be smaller than most crowdsourcing projects because of the special skills involved, but we believe that if people are interested, they can learn and contribute. And we’ll provide a simple set of guidelines for making semi-diplomatic transcriptions.

We would LOVE if the readers of this blog would volunteer to share transcriptions with us (partial ones are okay) in whatever form they have, or incorporate transcription into their coursework, or become some of our crowdsourcing superheroes! We will let people know via our research blog and social media when we are ready for crowdsourcers, but feel free to contact me before then if you have transcriptions that are ready to go.

Could you tell us about the scope of the Folger’s collection of recipe books? Are you still collecting in this area?

I just did an advanced search in our catalog, Hamnet, for the form/genre term “Cookbooks” and material type “Manuscript” and got 74 hits. I did another search with the form/genre term “Medical Formularies” and material type “Manuscript” and got 114 hits. Obviously, many of our recipe books have both genre terms attached to their records, but that gives you a rough estimate: over one hundred medical and culinary recipe books, ranging in date from ca. 1550 to ca. 1800.

We acquire a few recipe books every year — they are a big strength of our collection and one that is important for us to grow. They provide such a wide variety of research opportunities.

Cookery and medicinal recipes, ca. 1675-ca. 1750
MS V.a.429 – Cookery and medicinal recipes, ca. 1675-ca. 1750

Several years ago, Adam Matthews produced a fantastic microfilm collection of Folger manuscript recipe books, for which blog editor Elaine Leong wrote the introduction. Now that online digitization is more common than microfilm, are you considering updating this?

The microfilm collection is a great way for people to access our recipe books, and I often point people to Elaine’s helpful introduction to it online. It includes 89 recipe books, but we have acquired many others since then so it is no longer complete. Our long-term strategy for EMMO is to digitize and transcribe the entire early modern portion of the manuscript collection, so at some point, users will be able to see and read everything in one place. Here’s a link to the recipe book images currently in our digital image database.

 Choyce receits collected of the book of Receits, of the lady Vere Wilkinson, 1673/74
MS V.a.612 –
Choyce receits collected of the book of Receits, of the lady Vere Wilkinson, 1673/74

How do recipe books feature in some of your public programming events?

Rebecca Laroche curated a great exhibition at the Folger in 2011 called “Beyond Home Remedy: Women, Medicine, and Science”, which included many of our recipe books. She teamed up with the Smithsonian to create a video on the science of the syrup of violets.

Another recent exhibition, in 2009, also featured recipe books with recipes for sleep: “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream”.

We welcome ideas for other ways to feature recipe books. The EMMO transcriptions will certainly provide many more opportunities to share their contents!

Thanks so much for the interesting interview, Heather! If you’re interested in featuring a library on the First Monday Library Chat, please email Michelle DiMeo .

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.

First Monday Library Chat: British Library

Welcome back to the First Monday Library Chat! We’ve been talking to libraries in the USA and Canada, but today we jump across the pond to the British Library in London, England. The British Library is one of the largest libraries in the world, with around 14 million books and a grand total of over 150 million items, print and digital.

Today I’m chatting with Dr. Arnold Hunt, Curator of Manuscripts at the British Library, about some of the manuscript recipe books in their collection.

The British Library has an impressive assortment of bound manuscript recipe books, and some loose recipe collections. Can you give us an idea of the scope of the library’s holdings?

Our subject-index of manuscripts lists over 300 items under the heading ‘Recipes’ or ‘Receipts’, ranging in date from medieval to nineteenth century, but chiefly from the early modern period.Some could be categorized as ‘cookery’ or ‘medicine’, but others are just listed in our catalogue as ‘miscellaneous receipts’ with no clear indication of their contents, so there’s still a lot of work to be done in describing and cataloguing them all properly.This is definitely one of the more neglected areas of our manuscript collections – partly, I suspect, because until recently these manuscripts would have been regarded as women’s work and therefore not very important.

I have a particular love for Sir Hans Sloane’s collection of manuscripts, which includes several early modern medical and scientific recipe books. Can you tell us a bit more about why the Sloane collection is important, and when and how the British Library acquired these works?

Sloane specialized in medicine and botany, though he collected very widely in other areas as well.For the first half of the eighteenth century, right up to his death in 1753, he was the pre-eminent English collector in these fields, so he had the pick of everything that came onto the market.One reason why his collections are important, though, is that he wasn’t fussy about what he acquired – he just collected everything he could lay his hands on – so his library is full of manuscript recipe books, including a lot of those ‘miscellaneous receipts’ that I mentioned just now, that a more fastidious collector might have discarded.After his death his collections were bought by Parliament and became the foundation of the newly-formed British Museum, later sub-divided to create the National History Museum and the British Library.

The Sloane collection includes some manuscript recipe books by both well-known and lesser-known figures. Why do you think Sloane was interested in collecting these? How do they fit into his book collection as a whole, or what can they tell us about Sloane?

Sloane’s motives for collecting aren’t always clear.But as a good Baconian, he wanted to get rid of the medieval tradition of ‘books of secrets’ and bring science and medicine into the realm of public knowledge.By acquiring these recipe books, he was bringing their contents into the public domain where they could be empirically tested by enlightened physicians like himself.The good recipes could be adopted, the bad ones could be discredited, and medical knowledge would thus be advanced.In other words, he seems to have looked on these manuscripts as potentially valuable resources for his own clinical practice.

I’ve noticed that many of the British Library’s recipe books, in the Sloane collection and in others, have been rebound. The new bindings are far less fragile and easier to use, but without the original bindings we lose some clues to the original composition process and use. Can you talk a bit more about conservation decisions? How do modern conservation practices differ from older ones?

Many of Sloane’s manuscripts were rebound in the nineteenth century.This was done for what at the time seemed to be perfectly good reasons, but it had some unfortunate results.I particularly regret the loss of some of Sloane’s notes on the flyleaves of his manuscripts, as well as notes by previous owners which might have told us something about their earlier provenance.Conservation nowadays is carried out with a lighter touch, and when manuscripts are rebound we generally preserve the covers of the old binding.  Our Collection Care blog explains the reasoning behind some of our conservation decisions.

Can you describe a couple of interesting recipe-related manuscripts in the Sloane collection that could inform us a bit about the scope of Sloane’s collecting practices?

Sloane MS 703 is a volume of household receipts, very neatly copied in a late seventeenth-century hand, which Sloane’s librarian Humfrey Wanley described as ‘A great Collection of Receits in Cookery, Physick, and other matters Relating to Women’.

Sloane MS 703, f. 43. Credit: British Library, London.
‘To make Oring Marmelett’. British Library, Sloane MS 703, f. 43v.

Sloane MS 1000 is a more miscellaneous collection, copied in a variety of different hands, often on small scraps of paper, which Sloane listed in his catalogue as ‘Processes and receits’ collected by ‘Mr Bonivert’ (i.e. Gideon Bonivert, one of Sloane’s correspondents).

Sloane MS 1000, f. 195. Credit: British Library, London.
‘A water for the head’. British Library, Sloane MS 1000, f. 195r.

What these two manuscripts show is that there’s very little distinction, in the early modern period, between receipts collected for domestic and household use and those collected for professional or medical use.Bonivert’s collection includes examples of both, and Sloane himself collected right across the spectrum.

Do these recipe books factor into any institutional digitization priority lists that might eventually provide free access?

For many of Sloane’s manuscripts we’re still reliant on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century catalogue descriptions, so at the moment I feel the priority is to get the collection properly catalogued to modern standards.Ideally this would include digitization as well, but the scale of Sloane’s collection makes this a dauntingly large task.However, we’ve been working with the British Museum and the Natural History Museum on a project called Sloane’s Treasures, which has the ultimate aim of bringing together all Sloane’s collections – books and manuscripts, prints and drawings, artifacts and specimens – into a single database where they can be studied as a unified whole.

Can anyone visit the collections in the Manuscript Reading Room?

Most of our manuscripts are available for consultation by anyone with a BL reader’s pass, though for some manuscripts we ask readers to supply a letter of introduction from an academic colleague or tutor.  If you’re planning a visit to the BL, and you already know what you want to see, you can order items in advance.  If you have a question about a particular manuscript in our collection, you can contact us at mss@bl.uk.

If you would like to suggest a library for the First Monday Library Chat, please contact Michelle DiMeo.

First Monday Library Chat: Provincial Archives of Alberta

Welcome back to the First Monday Library Chat! After last month’s chat with the Winterthur Library in Delaware, we now jump to Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada. Today I’m chatting with Glynys Hohmann, Team Lead in Government Records, and Karen Simonson, Reference Archivist in Access and Preservation Services, at the Provincial Archives of Alberta.

You have several early and mid-twentieth-century recipe books in your collection. Can you tell me a bit more about them?

The Provincial Archives of Alberta has recipe books dating from the early to late twentieth-century.  Some of the cookbooks, included in our fonds, were mass produced; others were produced by local organizations and church or women’s groups; and a few of the recipes are handwritten favourites jotted down by the fonds’ creators.

Gladys Ladell’s collection of cookbooks form part of the Ladell family fonds. Her collection of cookbooks date from the 1950s to 1974 and include, as examples, a Marwayne [Alberta] Women’s Institute Cook Book (no date), a Fidelis Club Strathcona Baptist Club’s book of “Favorite Recipes” (1952), a Metropolitan United Church Junior Women’s Association Cook Book (1952), and Kitchen Kapers from the Bittern Lake Community Association (1974). The Metropolitan United Church Junior Women’s Association cookbook demonstrates the diverse ethnicity of the Province of Alberta in a poem:

Here’s to the girls of the WA
(They’re Girls until they are 80. They say).
If you have a yen to be a good cook,
‘Tis simple, you’re in, if you study this book.
There’s pastries and pies, cookies and cakes
Borstch (sic); Chop Suey and for your tummy’s sake,
Try that concoction on page 68.
“It’s yummy.”

Metropolitan United Church Junior W.A. Cookbook 1952
Metropolitan United Church Junior Women’s Association Cookbook, 1952

Other recipes or cookbooks at the Provincial Archives of Alberta are handwritten. In the Cornelia Wood fonds, for instance, there is a notebook of “lessons in cookery” (circa 1912). Written in a scribbler notebook, Cornelia’s recipes included coffee, tea, cereal and cakes, and “general notes” on how to make pastry along with pie fillings, as well as Thanksgiving ideas such as a pumpkin pie recipe.

Other handwritten recipes come from the Bilodeau family fonds. During the 1930s, Gertrude Bilodeau handwrote several recipes in a handmade notebook entitled “True Romance”.  These recipes, possibly taken from a publication, include cinnamon apples, pies, omelets, soufflés and cakes. Another notebook includes baking hints and other kitchen tips, such as “how can I clean leather goods” and “how can I mend a kitchen knife.”

In addition, the Provincial Archives of Alberta houses hundreds of newspapers, on microfilm, from communities both large and small which trace events throughout Alberta’s history. These newspapers often include interesting recipes in their women’s sections.

The subtitle of the Recipes Project blog is “Food, Magic, Science and Medicine.” In addition to your recipe books, do you have other archival items that might be of interest to researchers working on these topics?

Although the Falun Sunshine Food Club fonds does not include recipes or a cookbook, it demonstrates some thoughts around cookery in the early 1950s. At meetings, the club (organized in 1951) would have demonstrations on making muffins, white sauce, cream soup and other foods, as well as demonstrations on how to set the table. During roll call at each meeting, the members would be asked to state different things relating to food such as “recipes I have collected”, “breakfast and dinner menus” and “your weight compared with what it should be.” The minutes record that only two members had their “ideal” weight, while two were underweight and three were overweight.

I love that — ripe with potential for the cultural historian! What other culinary history items can you highlight for me?

The Provincial Archives also has records relating to food establishments. Many fonds include menus from restaurants, hotels, and banquets such as a short order menu from the Dawson Creek Grill, a breakfast menu dating to circa 1923 from the Florence Hotel in Killam, Alberta, menus from the Edmonton Journal’s 60th Anniversary Banquet in 1963, and menus from the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Canadian Northern Railway.

The Provincial Archives of Alberta is the repository for the records of the Government of Alberta; as such, we also have records relating to the Government’s administration of agriculture and food in the province. The Agriculture, Food and Rural Development fonds dates from 1887-1993 and consists of over 1638 metres of textual records. The Dairy Division, a series within the fonds, has records regarding consumer safety and dairy products.

I’m sure most readers of this blog have never been to the Provincial Archives of Alberta. Can you tell us more about your collection as a whole, and what subject strengths you have?

The Provincial Archives of Alberta preserves and makes available for research both private and government records of all media related to the history and culture of Alberta, and serves as the permanent archival repository of the Government of Alberta. The Archives ensures a continuity of historical records of Alberta for today and tomorrow, so that the citizens of Alberta can use these records to better understand themselves.

Photo of girls with bread at Kolokreeka School, Smoky Lake, circa 1930
Baking bread at Kolokreeka School, Smoky Lake, ca. 1930.

The Archives’ mission is “To preserve the collective memory of Alberta, and to contribute to the protection of Albertans’ rights and sense of identity.”

The collection at the Provincial Archives includes:

  • 37,533 metres (123,140 feet) of government textual records
  • 3,434 metres (11,266 feet) of private textual records
  • 105,456 maps, plans and drawings
  • 1,247,525 photographs
  • 53,595 objects of audiovisual holdings including film, video and audio recordings
  • 14,520 volumes in the Sandra Thomson Reading Room Reference Library

How can we access your collections? Do you offer any travel fellowships? How much material is available online?

Most records available at the Provincial Archives of Alberta may only be accessed in person; however, holdings may be searched online. In our online collection of images, there are also descriptions of approximately 199 photographs of restaurants. The Provincial Archives does not provide for travel fellowships.

Thanks, Glynys and Karen, for chatting with me!

Be sure to join us again right after the holidays as we kick off 2014 with an interview with the British Library in London! If you’d like to inquire about featuring a library in this series, feel free to email: Michelle DiMeo.