Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project

The Michigan State University Library and the MSU Museums have partnered to digitize American cookbooks from the late 18th century through early 2oth century. There is a short and informative video hosted by the humanities and special collections librarians that emphasizing the British, African, African-American, and Jewish cookbooks in the collection. There is also commentary on the the books cultural and historical significance. The commentary also addresses why old cookbooks are hard to find (they wear out) and the value in preserving cookbooks due to the fact that they often addressed the issues from their day, such as housekeeping, gardening, preserving, special cooking utensils, illnesses, injuries, caring for livestock, homemade products, and emergency care. Many foriegn cookbooks were Americanized to incorporate native crops like pumpkins and corn. The video is best viewed in its original size, and even then some close-up images of books are pixelated and fuzzy. The index page also includes an introductory essay about the scope and nature of the entire collection, an FAQ about the project, press coverage, and staff who had a hand in the digitzation project. There are also in-depth explanations about the the digitization process, the editorial intervention, encoding guidelines and the the digitization of the museum objects into a multidimensional format. Only 75 books from the collection have been digitized, presumably chosen to indicate the scope and representative nature of the collection. How these books were chosen is not expressly stated.

Search options for the digitized books include alphabetical by author's last name, book title, recipe name and ingredient. A search result will include recipe name, cookbook title, and author, which are all active links for cross-search purposes. Browsing these books can be done by date and "Interest". "Interest" is a categorization list inspired by the digital collection's content and is "meant only as a suggestion for further research." There is no information on how "Interest" came to be determined. The glossary is dedicated to aniquated, colloquial, or obsolete terms that are found in the digitized items. The glossary includes links to references consulted in its building. The last update for the glossary was in 2004.

Each cookbook's index page includes a PNG thumbnail image of the book's cover, and author, publishing, and "Interest" links. Each author's index page inclues a bibliography of her/his work, biographical information (if known) and the resources consulted. The thumbnail can be enlarged as a JPEG in a separate window. Digitized books can be viewed via forward/backward arrows; the transcript of the book can viewed either in html or xml, or the entire book can be viewed as a PDF. A short introduction to the the book gives an overview of its content, highlights, and some editorial commentary.

The museum objects are in their own list alphabetically. Some can be manipulated to view from different angles and enlarged. There is no date on the dimensions of the object or its provenance. There are small paragraphs about it usage, but no data as to where these objects may be referenced in text (at least not as active links).

This site would be very informative for culinary, historical, social, and anthropological researchers or casual inquirers. I think it would have been interesting to a have a search function relative to the book's covers; much of the art/design on the covers is representative of the time it was published - i.e. Art Deco, Victorian, etc.

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