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Our goal in designing What’s on the Menu? has been to make transcribing as simple as possible. Yet, as you've probably found, the menus themselves are often far from simple. They contain prices (sometimes several per dish), variant spellings, sections, sub-sections, portion sizes, strings of food options, odd currencies, etc. While we can never create a system that will handle every menu perfectly, this page should help you to navigate some of the more commonly encountered issues.

Thanks to all of the volunteers who have gotten in touch with questions and suggestions, many of which deeply informed this document. Please stay in touch with other ideas or trouble spots at menus@nypl.org. We'll be expanding as we go.


Is there anything you don’t want me to transcribe?

Good question. If you can eat it, drink it or smoke it, transcribe it. Otherwise skip it. That means we do want to capture wine and liquor lists. They can be daunting, but they're worth the effort.

Things not to transcribe include prominent information such as names/locations of restaurants, dates, and section headers (e.g. "soups" "fish" "desserts"). As tempting as these items might be, hold off for now. It's not that we aren't interested (we are!), but at this stage we want to stay focused on building a database of dishes. We'll get to the other stuff later.

Other things to avoid:

  • Slogans ("There is only one Velvet, nothing like it.")
  • Instructions ("not responsible for personal belongings")
  • Admonitions ("patrons should exercise patience")
  • Announcements (e.g. seasonal changes to dining hours)
  • Guest lists and seating arrangements
  • Concert programs
  • Toasts/remarks
  • Tourist information
  • Any other non-edible scribbles or print

CAPS and lowercase

Sometimes you'll see a dish written in ALL CAPS. Other times with First Letters Capitalized. Or with just the Leading letter. Just type what you see. Our search engine will figure it out later.

NOTE: Ever transcribed something one way, e.g. "Salted Almonds", and had it save as "SALTED ALMONDS"? Or vice versa? Don't worry, you're not crazy! This means the dish has been transcribed previously from another menu, with identical spelling but different capitalization. The database defers to the first entered version.


General rule:

Keep the commas: e.g. Beech-nut ham, country style
Punt the periods: e.g. Frizzled Beef, in Cream (. omitted)

But don't obsess. These details will be relatively easy to refine later.

Typos, misspellings and abbreviations

Some folks have asked what to do with typos ("pic" for "pie") and misspellings ("potatoe") in the original text of the menus. Do you correct it, or preserve the erratum for posterity? For now, stick with the "type it exactly as it appears" rule. We can refine the data later. Same goes for abbreviations ("s'c'e" for "sauce"; "cd" for "creamed"). Type it as you see it.

What does 'Under Review' mean? Who reviews it?

Under Review means the menu has been transcribed but still may need further proofreading and cleanup. All dishes are editable. If you see something you want to fix, simply click on the green check mark of the dish you’d like to edit, make your changes and save. That’s all there is to it. If a menu looks like it's been thoroughly checked and there's nothing more to be done, you can click the 'Mark as complete.' link in the top left, underneath the menu date. Library staff will review it further.

Lists, dittos and other repetition issues

Sections, and when to follow the leader

At this point in the project, we're not asking volunteers to transcribe menu section names (we have another tool coming down the road for that). But sometimes you'll need to make little judgement calls about when to add the section name when typing out individual dish names. For example, in this menu:

Sometimes you'll need to make little judgement calls about when to add the section name when typing out individual dish names.

In the case of "Clams", the underlying dishes contain only basic adjectives, some so general (such as "Fried" or "Stewed") that they give the future researcher few clues as to what they describe. In these cases, it's best to insert the section name into the dish name when you transcribe, like so:

  • "Fried clams"
  • "Stewed clams"
  • "Little neck clams"

"Clam cocktail", however, is clear enough, so no need to add the extra "clams".

It's not a perfect science, but this general guideline should serve you well. When in doubt, think to yourself how to make the most useful formulation with the least amount of modification.

Multiple dishes listed on the same line

Multiple dishes listed on the same line.

Many menus list similar dishes together on one line. For example, in the menu excerpt above, we see "Oatmeal or hominy with milk". Rather than transcribing the whole list as a single item, best practice is to break it apart into individual dishes, repeating any words that ought to be applied to each one: e.g. "Oatmeal with milk", "hominy with milk". If there is a price at the end of the list (e.g. 5 cents) that clearly applies to each dish individually, enter "0.05" in the price field for each dish.

On the other hand, if you see a dish that lists all the components of a “plate”, such as Golden Plover on toast, fried hominy enter that as one dish. This meal is a single, composed plate and we’d like to capture it as such.

What's the deal with the ditto?

An example menu with ditto marks.

Have you transcribed any bills of fare from a coffee shop or oyster bar? If so, you've probably encountered menus with ditto marks (") as in:

Eggs, Fried
", Poached
", Soft-Boiled

If you come across the ditto (sometimes the menu will read "do", too), include the "parent term" at the top of the list — "Eggs" in the above example. We want each dish to be a discrete item that can be searched and found independent of the specific menu context/hieararchies. Therefore, it's much better to have "Eggs, Poached" or "Poached Eggs" instead of " " Poached". In other words, don't transcribe the ditto, type the word that it implies.

What about wine and liquor lists?

It’s true, wine lists can be rather lengthy, but for an œnophile, they contain rich information and are as worthy of transcription as regular bills of fare.

Money trouble

Making sense of cents

25 cents for sirloin steak!

Believe it or not, a sirloin steak can cost as little as 25 cents. Crazy, I know. But some menus also include pricier items, such as a $2.50 Terrapin, Maryland. Therefore, we've defaulted the currency to dollars (if the menu is from the U.S.) and we're asking everyone to adjust accordingly. If a steak is 25 cents, please mark as .25 Obviously if you mess up (or see someone else mess up) it can be cleaned up in the “under review” section, but it always helps us to add that little decimal point.

What to do with shillings

We have menus in many different currencies.

Right now, in beta, our currency system is pretty basic and can't yet handle pre-decimalized prices. This mainly comes up with British shillings (often in the wine lists of the Cunard Line). Until as recently as the 1970s, shillings proudly defied the powers of 10, with 12 pence (d) to the shilling (s), and 20 shillings to the pound (£). Our decimal-oriented system doesn't know what to make of that, so until we upgrade, we've decided to switch off the price fields for menus that contain shillings.

Different sizes, different prices

If there is more than one price, you’ll be prompted to enter the other price listed. Right now, we’re not capturing the portioning description (e.g. pints vs. liters; glasses vs. bottles), just the high and low price (we’ll look into capturing portion descriptors later). If there are more than two prices, don't worry about the middle ones. We're interested in the range.

Prix Fixe menus and section pricing

If you encounter a set price for a group of dishes, as here:

Groups of dishes.

Or for an entire menu, as here:

25 cents for breakfast!

Just transcribe the dishes sans price. We'll handle this kind of pricing later when we roll out our sectioning tool.

Multilingual menus

Three words: Norddeutscher. Lloyd. Bremen. The famed shipping company, whose beautiful menus grace our collection, frequently list dishes in both English and German. Citronen-Auflauf and Souffle of lemon are two different names for lemon souffle, but since both names are reflected on the menu, we would like to have both names to be reflected in our data, so go ahead and transcribe both as individual dishes. We'll explore ways of linking transcriptions later.

Other ideas/questions?

Email us at menus@nypl.org