A Snapshot of the Food Studies Community

By Christian Reynolds

From October to December 2019, the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship Network ran a community survey asking what (and how) food scholars are currently using analogue and digital material. We were also interested how the community thought US and UK libraries and archives could better support food researchers through digitisation and activities. (See previous blog post.)

We were overwhelmed by the response to the community survey with 200 respondents from the global food research community — despite there being multiple ‘disruption events’ including an eight day university strike for many UK research institutions, as well as the Thanksgiving Holiday period. We’re really excited to have the voices of so many food researchers help us shape what is needed by the community. 

In the next few months, we are writing up the results of the community survey. But in the meantime, we want to share with you the headline descriptive results of the survey: who are we, what we want, and how we communicate. 

Who? and Where?

Though the community survey nominally focused on respondents from the United States of America (41%), and the United Kingdom (28%), there were additional respondents from multiple other countries (31%). The largest other populations of these were Canada (9%), and Australia (5%). Participants responded from twenty-one countries in total. 

There was a wide spread of ages, with the majority of respondents(44%) being between 31-50 years of age. 

Age of respondents

Over 70% of participants were academics. This included Professors (16%), Early Career researchers (14%), and Students (17%). There was a wide range of other professionals (n=55) including independent scholars, cooks and chefs, writers and journalists, book sellers, and heritage professionals. The range of respondents certainly represents the diversity of jobs and roles within the wider the food research community! But also owing to such a breath of roles and ages of respondents, there was a lot of variation in the familiarity/comfort with digital and analogue research tools.

Type of Researcher

The geographic scope of food studies is truly broad, with most researchers interested in more than one geographic area. 125 (or 62.5%) respondents were interested in the UK region, while 133 (or 66.5%) were interested in the US region. Another 66 respondents were interested in Canada, 97 in the wider colonial areas, and 99 interested in multiple other places globally.

This geographic interest is also shown by the broad range of locations holding primary research material. 112 respondents mentioned UK archives and 118 mentioned US archives. Even so, Canadian, Australian, and European archives featured heavily — and many other global institutions were mentioned.

Results suggest that there is overlap in user-base between global (UK, US, etc.) archives, but we need to do more research to understand how the community fits into the wider food research community. By this, I’m thinking of where a researcher is based versus where their archives are based. 

Percentage of respondents who use these cultural institutions

There were another ninety-four institutions were mentioned by name in the “other” text box. Multiple mentions include places like Yale University Library, Winterthur Museum, University of Toronto, New York Public Library, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Bibliothèque nationale de France, National Library Australia, archive.org — and so many more.

What does the community want?

The most asked for service at 92% was… digitization of materials! The community also wants finding aids and catalogues (each 64%). These views were further expressed in the free text “other” category.

Priorities for content and services provision

What people wanted digitised most (184 respondents) was Printed Material (Books, Magazines, Advertising, Ephemera, etc.). In other words, researchers thought digitisation of these items would help their research the most.  Printed Materials had a mean “importance” score of 85 (out of 100).

However, researchers also wanted to see more OCR text functionality (n=179) and digitised manuscripts (n=178); these had mean importance scores between 74 and 80. Additional analysis needs to be carried out to understand how particular types/themes of food research (and users of specific archives) can be prioritised. 

Mean importance score for increased digitisation and access of materials to help individual research activities

How do we communicate?

Email remains the most common method for communication between researchers and cultural institutions (n=178), with in person communication being the second most popular (n=115). A smaller community of respondents interacted with cultural institutions via social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram . We have yet to “cut” this with age based variables. Interestingly blogs and website messaging/chat, and WhatsApp services were mentioned in the “Other” free text response. 

This, of course, is just a snapshot of our community of food researchers. There is still so much to explore in the survey results! Please do contact me (c.reynolds@sheffield.ac.uk)  for if you would like to give additional feedback or thoughts. We’d love to hear from you.

And to complement the wealth of information from the community survey, we are now conducting a follow up 2020 Archive Survey — directed at curators and digitisation teams in cultural institutions. Please promote this Archive survey to any curators and digitisation teams in your own networks. We’d love to know more from cultural institutions about the scope of their food-related collections, any barriers to digitization, and future ambitions. The Archives survey closes on 14 March 2020.

Editorial Note: Christian Reynolds is the principal investigator of the the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network  (@AHRCfoodnetwork on Twitter). The Recipes Project is a partner organisation in the network.

Around the Table: Research Technologies

This month on Around the Table, I am chatting with Christian Reynolds, a lead investigator on the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network. Since the Recipes Project is a partner organization to the network, we wanted to encourage all our readers to become acquainted with this effort to make food-related digital materials more accessible. We hope that after reading about the project, you will visit this survey to assist the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network.

Could you describe the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network to Recipes Project readers? What kind of information are you collecting and what will be available through the network?

A cook is standing in a kitchen with food in pans on the tables in front of him. Coloured lithograph. Source: Wellcome Images.

Food has become an increasingly popular subject of study due to its inherently multidisciplinary nature. Food’s universal pervasiveness allows it to become an accessible window into every culture and time period. The materials and texts concerning food offer a continuous resource that spans thousands of years of human civilisation, with a massive corpus of written manuscripts, printed documents (books, pamphlets, menus), and other material culture and ephemera (including images and sound recordings) available for study.

Many cultural institutions (such as libraries, museums, galleries, archives, etc.) have large collections relating to food. Some of these collections are now (partially) digitised, and accessible to the global research community. However, knowledge of the existence and depth of many of the collections is limited, and there is a lack of communication between cultural institutions and researchers.

The AHRC US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network is a platform for US and UK higher education institutions, libraries, other cultural institutions with food-based materials and collections, as well as the researchers who use these collections. 

In this pilot stage of the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network we will be collecting information about the researchers who use food related materials and collections – and what materials they would like digitised as a priority, as well as identifying the range of cultural institutions that have materials currently available for research.

There is also additional funding for digital scholarship research activities between US and UK researchers coming from the AHRC until 2023. This network would be happy to support any other food related researchers and cultural institutions in applying for funding from this scheme.

Is the network focused on certain chronological, geographical, linguistic, or other collection scopes? Or is it inclusive of any food-related digital materials?

Persimmon, axial view, MRI. Alexandr Khrapichev, University of Oxford. Source: Wellcome Images.

AHRC US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network is inclusive of all food-related digital materials across the interdisciplinary food system, to include a wide variety of digitised corpuses and artefacts ranging from digitised cookbooks and food texts, collections in archives (medicinal texts, food manuals, menus, social media interaction archives, etc) and libraries, through to the use of, and interaction with, digitised economic botany, agricultural, and museum collections. The main limit (due to funding) is that we are currently concerned with only cultural institutions in the US and the UK. However, the content within these digitised archives can relate to any chronological, geographical, or linguistic food related materials.

Will the completed network be open-access for anyone to use? When do you expect it will be available?

The outcomes of the network (reports, webinars, etc.) will be open-access. We hope these will be available in early 2020. We are asking librarians from many of our partner intuitions to provide a short introduction webinar about their collections.

Are any future projects or events planned in coordination with the network? What kinds of future collaborations and research do you envision?

Food warmer, England, 1801-1850. Science Museum, London. Source: Wellcome Images.

1)The AHRC is planning to fund additional UK-US digital scholarship activities until 2023. As a network we would be happy to support other researchers and groups wishing to apply for this funding.

2) There is a lot of research that can be done with the content currently digitised, however, many archives only have less than 5-10% of their holdings digitally available. Getting this content online, and in a searchable format is a high priority. In this regard, additional funding could be used to run scanathons and transcribathons, to allow more digital content to be unlocked for researchers. This could also encompass citizen science projects to transcribe archives and recipes. Another next step is creating standardised tagging and meta data systems for recipes to allow searching across collections.

3) We are currently conducting a survey among food researchers to map what archives and materials the food research community currently uses, and what we – as a community – want digitised. This will allow us to go together (researchers and archives) to funders with a plan for digitising the most needed content.

Are you welcoming suggestions for inclusion of other digital collections? How can our readers contribute?

We are very much welcoming suggestions of other digital collections to include in our list.

The best way for readers to contribute to the network is to fill out the 20 question survey that is mapping the research interests and materials and archives used by the food research community.

This will allow us to identify what archives and materials are being used, as well as see what the community is needing digitised as a priority.

Thanks, Christian, for sharing information about the AHRC US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network! You can reach Christian and the network team on Twitter @AHRCfoodnetwork or via email. If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.