The New York Public Library’s “What’s on the menu?” Project

The New York Public Library wants you! The public library system is currently working on a large-scale project to transcribe and digitize their collection of more 40,000 menus that date back to the 1840s, and they’re opening the process up to the public. So if you want to try out your amateur archivist chops, or want to help out just to see what people were eating in the 1800s, visit the link below to see how you can contribute to this fascinating and hunger-inducing research project.

What’s on the Menu? Help transcribe The New York Public Library’s historical menu collection.

If you want to read more about the digital humanities and Archives 2.0, you can also read my article about the Bentham Project at University College London, where researchers are actively recruiting the public to help them transcribe the papers of Jeremy Bentham. Also also:

A New York Times series on Humanities 2.0.

The Bentham Project at University College London.

UCLA’s Center for Digital Humanities.

Aardvark and Social Search

I recently found this website called Aardvark, advertised as a “social search engine” where people can find answers online from other people, not web pages. It’s a very interesting site and is part of the growing trend towards social search.

The era of social search

Online search is becoming a more dynamic and interactive process. This is apparent when you see how many people turn to social networks like Facebook to ask, “What’s the best burrito in Los Angeles,” or “What’s a fun bike ride in San Francisco?” The results of asking your FB friends these questions are immediately obvious: your friends in Los Angeles or San Francisco can instantly chime in and give you their input. After all, wouldn’t you prefer to get answers from people you know and trust rather than from random websites online? This is very likely the future of search and it promises (we’ll see!) to help people find more useful information in a crowded online landscape.

FB’s social media platform has allowed the company to gain a decided social search advantage. Its platform allows people to easily exchange information within the self-contained world of FB and the “Like” button allows users to see who’s sharing what online. Google, not to be outdone by FB of course, is also in the process of constructing a more open social search platform, starting with the recent launch of their +1 button and the new recommendation links showing up in Google search results. Aardvark, acquired by Google in February 2010, appears to be another part of the company’s plan to develop a wider social search platform online.

How does Aardvark work?

When you create an account, you select your location and choose from a list of categories that you could answer questions about (eg, pets, restaurants, dating, wine, economics). But how does the Q&A thing work? Well, Aardvark uses this location- and taxonomy-based system to find people within your social networks who can answer your question. When you ask a question, Aardvark looks at your location and any keywords within your question to find the person best suited to answer it. Using the “What’s the best burrito in Los Angeles?” example above, Aardvark finds people located in Los Angeles who can answer questions about “food.”

The image above is the screen where you can ask a question. In the right-hand margin under “Watch live…” you can see that when I took this screenshot, questions about “restaurants,” “travel,” and “Santa Monica” had just been answered.

This is my profile page. It shows the taxonomy terms that I’ve chosen to answer questions about on the Aardvark system. My topics include “books,” “cycling,” “libraries,” and “restaurants.”

The screenshot above shows how the Aardvark taxonomy structure works. It’s hierarchical in nature and I believe it can be modified. If you select “food” you then have the option to get more specific by also selecting “cooking” and even more specific by answering questions about “baking” or “spices.”

As you can see, these types of platforms could (potentially!) significantly impact how information is organized, searched for, and retrieved in an online environment. And coming from a library science background, it’s fascinating to think about how this type of location- and taxonomy-based system could also impact online reference services and digital librarianship. Social search platforms (like Aardvark) really are at the intersection of web technologies and library science and I hope this trend stimulates conversation within the library profession about how these new technologies could be applied to our field.

Have you used a social search platform? How was it? Were you impressed? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts. I signed up for Aardvark so I’m going to try it out and see how it works. Will report back.