September 14, 2015 - Comments Off on Thing | To Live and Dine in L.A.
THING explores archival culture through interviews which highlight an item, event, or exhibition from a local archive. This edition features Stacy McKenna, LAPL Menu Archivist, in conversation with LAAC about the current exhibition "To Live and Dine in L.A." This exhibit will be on view at the LAPL Central Library - Getty Gallery through November 13, 2015.
Exhibit: To Live and Dine in L.A.
Institution: Central Library - Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL)
Collection: Menu Collection
About: “To Live and Dine in L.A.” showcases the LAPL Menu Collection and celebrates the history of restaurants and food in Los Angeles.
What is the background history of the Menu Collection and how it came to be?
In the 1980s, librarians in the Central Library Science Department, where most of the materials about cooking and restaurants are kept, thought it would be a fabulous idea to supplement our cookbook collection with a local menu collection. Letters were sent out to restaurants requesting donations. The responses (as well as items collected by librarians who brought menus back from their own dining adventures) formed the start of our collection. Subsequent donations from prominent local restaurant critics and reviewers such as Lois Dwan (LA Times) and Merril Shindler (Zagat editor and host of “Feed Your Face”, KABC) greatly expanded the collection. Recent donations from Joan Vieweger (“The Food Show,” KABC), Dr. Melvin Schrier (consummate world traveler), and particularly the Lord Printing Company, which focused almost exclusively on menus, have helped broaden the scope of our assets and given us an intriguing peek into the design and development of menus as a practical art form. Librarians from throughout the system still regularly bring in menus from their daily lunch rounds, international vacations, or antique and thrift shopping finds to supplement the collection. While the exhibit is installed, LAPL invites visitors to bring their menu donations for inclusion in the collection.
How was the idea for this exhibition developed?
“To Live and Dine in L.A.” is the second in a series of collaborative projects between LAPL, the Library Foundation of Los Angeles (LFLA), and USC professor Josh Kun. After the success of the “Songs in the Key of L.A.” exhibit featuring LAPL’s sheet music collection in 2013, it was decided another venture featuring the Menu Collection would be of interest and the current exhibit was born.
What was the process behind selecting the materials exhibited in the show?
Unfortunately, economy-driven staff cuts mean our special collections like the menus have not had the staffing they need for at least a decade. Exploring our menu collection has been something that has to be done by appointment, and often depends on the librarian’s familiarity with the collection and ability to recommend interesting items. (The monographs in Rare Books are fairly well cataloged and can fairly easily be identified and requested.) Before I was hired, Josh Kun worked with the librarians at LAPL to try and pull some of the most interesting and relevant menus from the existing collection and the newly received Lord donation without benefit of a comprehensive (or in the case of the Lord collection, even rudimentary) finding aid or catalog. Josh also did additional research, acquiring materials from other sources which he subsequently graciously donated to our collection. Selection criteria was based on a desire to demonstrate the unique culture of dining in Los Angeles, touching on elements such as economic disparity, our culturally varied immigrant populations, the image-heavy influence of Hollywood, and of course, our ubiquitous car culture and geography. In addition to all the menus, the exhibit team did extensive research in our photo collection to provide murals incorporating images of decades of dining in Los Angeles, many of them corresponding to menus on display, while others pay homage to venues not included in our menu collection.
What were some challenges and successes in putting together an exhibition of this nature? Can you describe the process between the Curator, Institution, Archivist, and Design Team?
The largest challenge during this project was our lack of consistent naming for items being used in the exhibit. Because so many of the items were new acquisitions, there was no consistent name or item number associated with many of the menus, thus communicating about them could be very confusing. In some cases, the menus were items I did not have physical access to as they were new items Josh Kun had on his end, making identification even more challenging. To make matters worse, hardware and software incompatibilities meant files being sent back and forth were not universally viewable. Early in my collaboration with the design team I compiled an online spreadsheet listing every item I believed we were talking about, including links to the images available (some in LAPL’s database, some not) so that they could be seen as well as described. Working with visual materials makes a visual interface invaluable. Information provided by the team about display areas and exhibit-specific reference numbers were included so they could confirm if I had the correct materials associated with their references. Since the document was available online, issues with software incompatibility were minimized, and it was easier for multiple people to edit, update, and reference the information. Thanks to these clarifications, when the final installation time came, I was able to quickly and easily pull items for the team to install in the exhibit.
What kind of feedback did the exhibition receive? Since the opening of the exhibition, have interest and research requests for the menu collection increased?
The response to the exhibit has been very positive. Everyone loves food, so everyone can relate to it. There have been a variety of communications about potential new donations or requests to see collection items.
What is your favorite item from collection/exhibition and why?
Interestingly enough, my favorite item from the exhibit is not an actual menu, but a blackline (blueprint) draft mock-up of a Shoney’s Big Boy menu used to establish layout. My affinity for this piece is purely personal, not due to any particular properties of the piece itself, though it is interesting to see how they would toss around layout ideas before they even had any text to include. As a blueprint operator while I was growing up, my mother spent decades running Diazo machines, a process that involves a great deal of ammonia in the processing (and itself now practically a “historical” technology). When I first encountered this item in the Lord donation and unfolded it, the smell of Diazo chemicals wafted off of it, and I was immediately taken back to my childhood. The sensory experiences of handling actual objects in an archive can be surprisingly impactful compared to viewing digitized versions of those objects. All of the process elements donated by Lord - untrimmed proofs, cover proofs with no internal contents, layout proofs with squiggly lines instead of text, even metal print plates were fascinating, but the fragile olfactory component of that blackline layout made it my favorite, even though it qualifies as an elephant folio and will require extra effort to rehouse and store.
Please tell us about yourself and your involvement with the exhibition and collection.
My name is Stacy McKenna, and I’m currently finishing up my Masters of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University. My first career was as an environmental and civil engineer working in the oil industry. I took a decade off to be a mom, and when the kid started school, I started volunteering at the library as a way to give back to my community. My supervising librarian pointed out that I would be well suited to librarianship, and a new career was begun. In September 2014 LAPL contracted me as the Menu Archivist thanks to a grant generously provided by the LFLA. For the next 10 months my job was to inventory and rehouse first the new donations (Vieweger, Schrier, and Lord almost doubled the size of our collection) and then the existing collection, very little of which was preserved in archival materials. My parents were a typographer and blueprinter when I was growing up, so I was familiar with many aspects of printing processes just from growing up around them. My civil engineering background had included a particular interest in preservation issues. Those elements combined with my current studies in library science made me a perfect candidate for working with a collection that was all about organizing, preserving, and providing initial cataloging for specialty printed materials. While I didn’t spend much time working hands-on with the exhibit design team, I was their source for details like dimensions, and was deemed nigh-magical when the newly-organized collection resulted in requests for materials being fulfilled the same day, something that previously was largely infeasible.
More Info About the Exhibit & Collection
“To Live and Dine in L.A.” will be on exhibit at the LAPL Central Library - Getty Gallery on the second floor through November 13, 2015.
LAPL Central Library
630 W. 5th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90071
Additional events are scheduled by LFLA around town and in various branches.
The menu collection can be seen online at http://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/visual-collections/menu-collection
If the item you want hasn’t been scanned yet, it can be seen by contacting our Rare Books librarians. Items from the collection can not be checked out, but arrangements can be made to view them in person at Central Library.
This interview is a part of LAAC’s new blog series, PERSON/PLACE/THING, designed to explore an aspect of local archival culture whether through an interview with a professional active in the field, exploring a local repository, or highlighting an item from an archival collection. If you have suggestions and/or would like to contribute to PERSON/PLACE/THING, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.