Digitizing Our Manuscript Cookbooks

By Andrea Byrne, Digital Technical Specialist

In December 2020, we launched a new digital collection: Recipes and Remedies: Manuscript Cookbooks. This is how we did it.

Our new digital collection showcases 11 of the 40 manuscript cookbooks the Library holds. The digitization is based on our earlier work with these materials. In 2012, the Pine Tree Foundation provided funding for conservation and cataloging of 31 of these manuscripts. In 2019, the foundation awarded the Library funding to digitize a selection of the English-language manuscript cookbooks and make them available to the public through the Library’s Digital Collections & Exhibits website. The digitized manuscripts will also be linked through corresponding listings in the Manuscript Cookbook Survey, providing a full-text option for each of our manuscripts on the site.

Four of the 11 manuscripts were previously digitized as part of an Adam Matthew Digital project, Food and Drink in History. After the earlier conservation work, only a quick conservation review was required before we sent the rest of the manuscripts out for scanning. The 2012 funding had also provided us with robust catalog records, so the work of our current project focused on providing a digital experience that was as similar as possible to paging through these manuscripts in our reading room. This work started with creating high-quality digital scans to display each item as a book object.

The manuscripts are viewable through the Internet Archive Book Reader, which allows a reader to browse a digital book page by page. Additional photo editing work was required to ensure that each page aligned with the next. This digital collection contains 2,021 pages and additional eyes were needed to review each page of every manuscript, to check the alignment, the consistency of page sizes, and the integrity of the images. Quality control is integral and took place multiple times on this project: to confirm the images were scanned correctly, to verify the content on the site was correct, and to check the functionality of the site.

Example of noting blank pages, from Recipe book : manuscript, 1804.

A couple of challenges emerged when attempting to preserve the integrity of each manuscript as a digital object. One of the concerns was blank pages: a few of these manuscripts have many blank pages. In the physical manuscript, a reader can turn several blank pages at a time. In the digital display, a reader may have a frustrating experience clicking blank page after blank page. Our approach to this concern was to include a scan of the first blank page in a section of blank pages and to note that not all the blank pages were scanned.

Example of displaying the front of an insert, from A collection of choise receipts : manuscript, circa 1680–1700.
Example of displaying the back of an insert, from A collection of choise receipts : manuscript, circa 1680–1700.

Another challenge was the display of inserts. A couple of the books included plant clippings and flowers pressed between the pages. To emulate the experience of viewing the inserts in the physical manuscript, we opted to overlay the front of the insert on the recto, and then have the same pages repeated in the next view, but with the reverse of the insert overlaid on the verso.

Elizabeth Duncumb’s recipe for waffles, from Duncumb recipe book : autograph manuscript signed, 1791–1800s.

Of course, no interventions can exactly replicate the experience of viewing and handling a physical object in person. How can one duplicate the heft of taking the 500-page “A collection of choise receipts” out of its clamshell box, or handling the slender “Hoffman home remedies” volume? But one advantage these digital surrogates provide is being able to make waffles from a handwritten recipe from 1791 without splattering batter on a unique and priceless cookbook!

This entry was posted in Announcements, Collections, Digital publishing and tagged , , by nyamhistory. Bookmark the permalink.

About nyamhistory

The Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, part of the Academy Library, promotes the scholarly and public understanding of the history of medicine and public health. Established in 2012, the Center aims to build bridges among an interdisciplinary community of scholars, educators, clinicians, curators, and the general public. The Center bases its work on the Library's historical collections, among the largest in this field in the United States and open to the public since 1878.

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