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The Culinary Institute of America. Image from http://www.adriennewolter.com/

Library Friday: Visiting the Hilton Library at the Culinary Institute of America

When I attended NYLA’s 2016 Annual Conference this past November, I learned that ‘special collections’ is such a broad term.

Excitingly, during a presentation titled, “Getting to Know Special Libraries,” I heard from librarians and preservationists who worked in contrasting settings: the Corning Museum of Glass, the New York State Academy of Fire Science and Fire Science Library, and the New York State Military Museum. From rare glass windows, to letters written by dying soldiers gassed during war— these artifacts tell different stories and may attract particular viewers, but are equally important in unveiling history of some sort.

When I am not in Hinds Hall working towards my Master’s in Library and Information Science, I’m most likely in my cozy apartment in ‘Cuse roasting my own coffee, making a vegetarian stew from scratch, or back home in the Hudson Valley caring for my chickens and collecting their eggs. I’m a huge ‘foodie,’ hence, my desire to visit the Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA) Archives and Special Collections, located in Hyde Park, New York.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Semenchuk, Archives and Digital Collections Specialist at the CIA. Nicole holds an M.A. in Creative Writing, has plentiful experience digitizing collections, and worked at the Smithsonian for over ten years.

In talking to Nicole, I learned about culinary students’ specific needs, how Nicole works to meet these needs, as well as her collection development procedure for the CIA’s rare books and 30,000+ menu collection.

Nicole and I had a great conversation and I left feeling incredibly inspired (and hungry). Here’s what I’d like to share from my gastronomical visit.

Brief History of the Collection

The Culinary Institute’s main campus used to be located in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1972, the CIA moved to its new campus in Hyde Park, and brought with it some of the menus that had been collected since the 1950s.

In the late 1990s, the archivist on staff numbered the menus and kept them together by donor. Through the early 2000s, however, no one was allowed inside the Special Collections space to view the menus. Instead, abrupt reference transactions tended to take place: come, look at a certain menu, leave.

In 2012, a new library director and dean were hired, and Nicole was hired to be the Archives and Digital Collections Specialist. The new staffers were advocates for opening the Special Collections to students and scholars. What was once a locked, dark room in the Conrad N Hilton Library is now a space visited by approximately 100 to 150 students per month.

Nicole had to work from the bottom up in making the collection viewable to the campus community. Her first step? A collection development policy.

Collection Development: How do you choose what menus to accept and what menus to deny?

Interestingly, all of the menus in the collection are donated, and all of the menus are accepted. Nicole only denies menus from the collection if they are too dirty or moldy and there is risk of ruining other menus.

I asked Nicole if she would accept a fast food menu or if it is not considered “fine dining,” and her response was intriguing: “Who am I to judge?” She went on to say that different types of menus make the collection richer, and fast food reveals a lot about a culture.

Like most special collections, the room is set to a specific temperature so that the menus stay intact over time. Rare culinary books are in shelves behind glass along the perimeter of the large, rectangular room.

Nicole shared, “The challenge is defining criteria for what should be in the rare books collection.” Nicole is the only person who works in the CIA’s Special Collections, so there is great freedom in what books she includes in the collection. On the other hand, sometimes she wishes she had a second opinion.

In the center of the room, there is a long wooden table where students and scholars can view materials, and Nicole didn’t require me to wear gloves when handling some of the recently donated menus. According to Nicole, “We’re totally hands on … literally. We use our collections. They’re not here to look pretty; we touch things. This is a very comfortable space and I want students to be comfortable visiting it.”

What is your favorite and least favorite part of your job?

“My least favorite part is that there is tons to do, so I don’t have enough time to research and write. I’d love to do some research on food and gender. My favorite part is working with the students.”

Nicole puts menus on display when new students attend a reception in the library on the second day of orientation. A lot of those students get excited about the collection and come back later.

Nicole also welcomes the Applied Food Studies class twice a semester to view the collection; they must compare two menus as part of an assignment. She also works with the Food History class on exhibit making. Their current exhibit is called Fire in the Belly and tells the history of fire used in cooking. Finally, the baking classes visit to view menus.

Nicole shared, “It’s fun doing the projects each semester because they can evolve. You have to keep improving it.”

What is it like working at a culinary institute in comparison to the other settings you’ve worked at?

Prior to working at the Culinary, Nicole claims, “I had never considered a restaurant menu collection before. Menus are so manageable and they’re used so often. They are no different than any other graphic material. It’s a lens from which we look at history, but I never would have looked at history from a food or advertising perspective before coming here.”

Nicole also shared that the Culinary Institute is not a research college. “We are a unique school with unique students. They all come here knowing what they want to do and they have a focus, which makes my job kind of easy.”

What are your thoughts on digitization versus in-person viewership of physical artifacts?

“Well the most important part is whether or not a digitization project ties in with an institution’s mission. We made it our mission to engage students so that they can get inspired and create.

“Digital collections are always beneficial, and today in 2016, if you do not have a digital presence, you really don’t exist. However, at the moment only 3,000 of our 30,000 menus are digitized, which can be problematic if online viewers think that this is the whole of the collection.”

What would be your advice to students who want to work with special collections?

“It’s all about the stuff and the stories they tell. Some of the job is being the storyteller, other times it involves being a salesperson and drawing people toward your collection. You are allowing space for a connection to be made with the viewer. The object is the story and you are the facilitator.”

Nicole also stressed that it is important for archivists to keep track of what is coming in and what is going out of a special collection, so that pieces do not get lost in transition.

Kayla Del Biondo

Kayla Del Biondo

Kayla is a second year MLIS student, and the current program assistant for the Library and Information Science Master's program at SU. She is interested in research, instruction, and academic libraries, and aspires to be both a librarian and a small farmer.

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