Digital Dark Ages, Documenting Food Histories, and Honoring Lynne Olver

The Historical Cooking Project began as a culinary history website but has branched into food studies more generally. It is a space where scholars write about their work both for academic and non-academic audiences. We aim to make food studies accessible. As we approach our five year anniversary, we have been thinking about how to preserve this resource.

Rapidly changing file formats, domain name ownerships lapsing, and new technologies threaten preservation. The struggle to keep resources up-to-date and accessible has led historians and archivists to fear that the modern era will be the digital Dark Ages for future generations. Keeping websites working and up-to-date is a specific struggle that requires constant maintenance, necessitating labor and financial resources.

Last year we ran a piece on food history websites that the Historical Cooking Project admires. Today we would like to draw attention to a specific food history website: The Food History Timeline (foodtimeline.org). The Food History Timeline is a fantastic resource whose own history reflects some of the challenges of maintaining digital resources.

In 1999, Lynne Olver (1958-2015) founded The Food Timeline, which she maintained until her death. Olver was a reference librarian with a passion for food history. Through the timeline she collected resources on food history with the goal to "make food history fun." The timeline is divided into two columns: "beginnings" and "recipes." The "beginnings" column explains when foods were first introduced and the "recipes" column provides historic recipes for some of these foods. Each entry in the timeline links to either an external site or to another part of the Food Timeline for additional information or recipes. Some of the external links are scholarly and others are for popular or news articles. It continues to share valuable information.

The Food Timeline's scope grew from a single page March 1999 with a sprinkling of links to 70 web pages offering a wealth of historic information, primary documents, and original research. By March of 2014, the site served 35 million readers. The original site Food Timeline, circa 1999, is available through the internet archive. The site shared resources about the art of culinary research/ research methodology with a page featuring popular requests and teacher resources. In 2004, the Food Timeline was awarded Saveur 100. It was recognized by the American Library Association as a Great Website for Kids and was reviewed in ALA's academic publication Choice in July 2009. 

Notably, Olver offered a Q&A service in which people could post culinary reference questions. She promised a turnaround time of 48 hours!!!! As of March 2014, Olver had answered 25 thousand questions. Incredible!

According to her friend and fellow reference librarian, Sara Weissman, Olver's comprehensive project began when she wrote a history of Thanksgiving dinner for children on the Morris County Library's Children's department website. The project continued to grow until it became too large for the county library's hosting resources. Weissman bought Olver an account and the domain name with their local ISP. Just before her death, Olver renewed foodtimeline.org for a decade. 

Olver did her own coding in, originally, HTML 2.0. Olver noted on her site that, "information is checked against standard reference tools for accuracy. All sources are cited for research purposes. As with most historical topics, there are some conflicting stories in the field of food history. We do our best to select and present the information with the most documented support." 

Lynne Olver used two computers and most of her day to link check her web site regularly to make sure that the links worked. Since her passing, Weissman has noted that her friends understandably have not continued to update the links and now the website is riddled with broken links. Olver hoped that eventually her physical library of 2,000+ books and the website would go to the Culinary Institute of America as a teaching tool. As of August 2018, no institution has undertaken the project or collection. 

After her death, Weissman and Olver's family settled upon which social medium accounts to delete and which to maintain. Currently only the food timeline twitter account and the website with an attached mailbox remain. Weissman stripped out all links to Olver's Q & A service from the site. However, she continues to check the mailbox periodically for messages. I am incredibly grateful to Weissman for discussing Olver's legacy with me.

The Food History Timeline's history speaks to the difficulty of maintaining digital resources, especially those independent of large institutional resources. While the internet has been touted as a democratization of knowledges and a tool for making knowledge more accessible, the ephemeral quality of digital resources challenge this narrative of accessibility. How do we as historians and archivists preserve digital projects? Is our work fated to disappear? 

Olver's memory lives on. This July, five of Lynne Olver’s colleagues dined at the Bocuse of the Culinary Institute of America in her honor. The Food History Timeline still gets around 2 million hits per year. As of now, the domain name is set to expire in 2025.



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