Feeding America: Lessons from a Project Demonstration
First Monday

Feeding America: Lessons from a Project Demonstration by Michael Seadle

"Feeding America" is a two-year Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) funded project. The project began in October 2001 and was first demonstrated at the Web-Wise 2002 conference in Baltimore in March 2002. Three lessons emerged from the Web-Wise demonstration, and other public discourse. The first has to do with reading, the second with technology, and the third with enhancements.






"Feeding America" is a two-year Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) funded project whose goals are:

  • to digitize and make available online 75 of the most important and influential American cookbooks published between 1798-1923;
  • to enhance them with definitions of unfamiliar cooking terms and three-dimensional images of 100 nineteenth century cooking tools;
  • to make the works searchable using XML (eXtensible Markup Language) and a cookbook-oriented variant of the TEI DTD (Text Encoding Initiative Document Type Definition);
  • to set the works in their intellectual context through an introductory essay by culinary historian, Jan Longone, and through author biographies; and,
  • to evaluate the usefulness of these materials through feedback forms, focus groups, and Web statistics.

The project began in October 2001 and was first demonstrated at the Web-Wise 2002 conference in Baltimore in March 2002, a scant quarter of the way into the project. The advantage of this early demonstration was to get feedback on the site, the technologies, and the educational approach at a point where changes could be made at relatively low cost.

It is useful to examine the Web site (http://digital.lib.msu.edu/cookbooks) along with this article, but readers should keep in mind that it remains a work-in-progress with changes occurring constantly.

Three lessons emerged from the Web-Wise demonstration, and other public discourse arising from public exposure including early coverage of the project by the Detroit Free Press. The first lesson has to do with reading, the second with technology, and the third with enhancements.




Despite my bifocals, I have long advocated online reading, and most of Michigan State University (MSU) Libraries' digital projects assume a significant tolerance for online reading of article, chapter, and even book-length materials. Reading online has advantages in terms of search capabilities, pop-up definitions of unfamiliar words, and linkages to enhancements such as the three-dimensional objects. But it also has the well-known disadvantages of eyestrain from poor text-to-background contrast, portability, and on-page note-taking.

One of the design principles for Feeding America has been to make the online version so useful that the disadvantages pale in importance. In a demonstration this is relatively simple to achieve because no one is trying to read the works in a linear manner, and the examples all emphasize high technology relationships impossible in mere paper. I could easily please the crowd with pop-up explanations of "saltpeter" and "force-meat," and could show all parts of a Dutch oven or a meat chopper, without losing my place in the text. The same references are possible in a printed version, but not in the original nineteenth century version, and not without referring back to glossaries and appendices that most undergraduates will not do, to say nothing of the K-12 audience.


Figure 1: The cover page from Amelia Simmons, American Cookery (1798).


Achieving the same positive reaction without a demonstration that actively shows off the technology-based features seems harder. Readers tend to start at the beginning and want to flip through pages as they would a paper version until something catches their eye. The Feeding America site offers two equal options for reading: the page images and the XML text. Readers left on their own often start with the page images because they want to get a sense of the look-and-feel of the original (see Figure 1), but paging through a work this way is immensely frustrating at anything less than a T1 connection, and even at high-bandwidth the trade-off between image-quality and screen-refresh rates makes movement significantly slower than in paper.

Choosing the XML text works much better for browsing, and gives access to all of the built-in linkages, but loses something of the nineteenth century character that seems integral to the charm and attraction of the works. The screen fonts, the colors, and especially the enhancements all undermine the subconscious pleasure in touching older objects. Part of an effort to combat this is a link on every XML "page" to the image of the original. Perhaps the link really needs to be a thumbnail in a side column, or perhaps even that cannot compensate for the mood-dispelling intrusion of modernity. As a source of information, the XML is superb. As a reading experience, it remains moderately unsatisfying.

One experiment we are trying separate from the IMLS-funded project is to work with the MSU Press to offer facsimile copies of the originals at a modest price, so that a person could have paper versions to examine in traditional linear fashion, and the online enhancements as an information source.




In a Library with Internet 2 connections, T1 to the desktop, and the latest computers and software, technology works deceptively well. Students, particularly K-12 students using telephone lines, old equipment, and software dating from a prior millennium may have a much less satisfying experience. Feeding America's three-dimensional object displays are particularly technology-sensitive (see http://digital.lib.msu.edu/cookbooks/object.cfm). They are QuickTime movies that will not play on plug-ins more than a few years old. When I demonstrated them at Web-Wise, the images loaded, but refused to interact to let me rotate the objects, or to show the inside of the Dutch oven or the meat chopper. The plug-in even refused to play the digital video of a docent lecture by one of our MSU Museum partners explaining how the oven and the chopper were used. The fault was entirely mine. I had failed to say anything about version dependences, and then had no time to load later copies.

Many K-12 students could be in a worse situation. I knew immediately what had gone wrong and how to fix it. They might not. They might well not pay attention to or understand a warning that certain plug-in levels are required, and even if they did understand, they might not know how to, where to, or even be allowed to load down the latest version. Technology for them needs to be a reliable tool, not an adventure that distracts from the real purpose of learning from the site.


Figure 2: A meat chopper, courtesy of the MSU Museum.


There are ways of dumbing down technology, such as giving the option of using older versions of plug-ins, or offering alternatives such as a series of photographs of the meat chopper (see Figure 2) or the Dutch oven (see Figure 3), and an audio-only or even text-only version of the docent lecture. These provide access at the price of stripping away the multimedia experience, which is meant to intrigue and entertain as well as educate. Creating such alternatives also adds to the development costs.


Figure 3: Figure 3: A Dutch oven, courtesy of the MSU Museum.


Beginning next year, when we have a critical mass of material, we are planning to test Feeding America with elementary school students in the East Lansing (Mich.) schools. Although we expect that this test could encounter some modest technological problems, the majority of students in this university community come from families with home computers and good Internet connectivity. Technology that works for them may still fail in poorer and more rural areas. It will at least represent a benchmark for future tests.




The urge to enhance begins the moment a proposal goes into the mail. Those who have done much project management know that enhancement tends to be the enemy of timely completion and the source of cost overruns. MSU Libraries values its reputation for on-time, on budget completion. Nonetheless we have contemplated some enhancements, and have built in some flexibility so that each time we measure the outcomes of our project, we have the resources to adjust as needed. The goal ultimately is an educational effect, not a certain number of books or objects or encoding techniques.

One enhancement that we have already introduced is the video docent. This is an experiment that grew out of discussions with the Michigan Historical Center over a project that focused mainly on artifacts. The concern was that just being able to manipulate an object would still not tell people how it was used or what unique features to look for. We had planned a text accompaniment, but people may not to read the text when they can play with the artifact instead. A video docent provides an attractive multimedia alternative information source.

In fact the cost of this enhancement is low. MSU Libraries already owns the necessary equipment and has the digitizing technology from other projects. The curator has been willing to donate time, and our digitizing technician can fit the work in as well. The first attempts have not been ideal, though. The original idea was to aim for a certain informality in the presentation, but what works in face-to-face encounters may look amateur online. We are plan to redo the video and try again with a different audience. This enhancement remains an experiment, and may not make the final version.




The value of doing a demonstration six months into a project is that it serves as a prototype that shows some of the advantages and disadvantages of a Web-based project like ours before so much work has been done that change becomes expensive, time-consuming, or merely an idea for future projects. Interaction with colleagues at Web-Wise gave useful feedback about how people read, how technology works (or fails), and how well people might respond to a docent in digital video.

The opportunity to see the demo continues online. As at Web-Wise, the Feeding America Website remains a work in progress. Some features may temporarily break, and new books will certainly be added. But feedback in always welcome. End of article


About the Author

Michael Seadle is the Digital Services and Copyright Librarian, and head of the Digital and Multimedia Center at Michigan State University Libraries, East Lansing, Michigan. He is also editor of Library Hi Tech.
Web: http://digital.lib.msu.edu
E-mail: seadle@msu.edu

Editorial history

Paper received 24 April 2002; accepted 26 April 2002.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2002, First Monday

Feeding America: Lessons from a Project Demonstration by Michael Seadle
First Monday, volume 7, number 5 (May 2002),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue7_5/seadle/index.html

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