The Food Timeline has been saved! [Updated]

The start of the Food Timeline
The start of the Food Timeline
Screenshot: The Food Timeline (Fair Use)

Update January 13, 2021: Yesterday I tried to check the Food Timeline and saw the site was down. I panicked. And then I grieved. Was it gone forever and ever? Fortunately, I was able to access an archived version through the Library of Congress (yes, it is that important), but I wondered. Later, though, Eater provided an answer.

The Food Timeline has been acquired by the Special Collections and University Archives department at the Newman Library at Virginia Tech University! There hasn’t been much good news lately, but this definitely qualities.

There were many suitors who were interested in the Food Timeline after the family of Lynne Olver, the New Jersey reference librarian who singlehandedly built and maintained it until her death in 2015, offered the site and Olver’s personal reference library for free to anyone who was willing to continue her work. Olver’s family organized them all in a spreadsheet, Eater reports, and eventually narrowed the choices down to five. Virginia Tech was chosen because the Olver family felt it was most committed to preserving the Food Timeline’s mission. Per Eater:

Kira Dietz, the assistant director of special collections and university archives at Virginia Tech, wrote that their proposal for the project would be interdisciplinary among different sectors of the university, and that even outside of the library and food studies program, “other faculty are willing to commit time and technical expertise to this potential project.” That meant that, even if Lynne’s books were housed in the History of Food & Drink library, they would be accessible to everyone. And the site, as always, would continue on as a free resource for everyone, everywhere, with students and faculty updating it with their latest research.

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The three-member special collections staff is currently in the process of cataloging Olver’s books (a task impeded by limited operating hours because of COVID-19) and the site is down for maintenance. But Dietz says that it should be back up in the next couple of weeks and then she and the other librarians will be able to start updating the Timeline again. In the meantime, she told Eater that if anyone has any questions about food history or the Timeline in general, they should feel free to reach out to her personally.

Meanwhile, Gordon Olver, Lynne’s husband, told Eater that he plans to take the money he’ll get back on his taxes from making the donation and use it to establish a scholarship at Virginia Tech for Food Timeline research in Lynne’s honor. He hopes that eventually others will contribute to it, too. Well, it’s all the least we can do, isn’t it?

Original post July 9, 2020: If you have any interest in food history at all, you’ve probably come across the Food Timeline, an extraordinary free website that tracks the evolution of food, recipes, and trends from prehistory to the present.

The Food Timeline explains itself with this header: “Food history presents a fascinating buffet of popular lore and contradictory facts. Some experts say it’s impossible to express this topic in exact timeline format. They are correct. Most foods are not invented; they evolve. We make food history fun.

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There are thousands of entries, ranging from cattle domestication to medieval foods and menus to Marshmallow Peeps, just about everything that explains American food and how it got that way. For food-obsessed people, it’s a really fun way to lose a few hours, over and over again.

The most amazing thing about the Food Timeline, aside from its breadth, is that it was the work of just one person, a New Jersey reference librarian named Lynne Olver. Dayna Evans has written a lovely profile of both Olver and the site over at Eater. Olver, she writes, was obsessed with both research and the Timeline; she would work on it 30 hours a week on top of her day job at the Morris County Public Library. She promised users that she would answer all their questions within 48 hours, and she took that commitment seriously, to the point of dragging her computer along with her on family vacations.

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Olver died of leukemia in 2015 at age 57. She left behind a husband, two children, a personal library of thousands of food-related books, and, of course, the Food Timeline. The Timeline hasn’t been updated since her death. Her family members felt incapable of maintaining it to her standards. “To anyone willing and able to maintain Olver’s vision of an ad-free, simply designed, easy-to-access resource on food history,” Evans writes, “the family members say that the website and her library are theirs, for free.”

So far, though, they haven’t found any takers. But surely there must be someone out there with the time, interest, and skill to be able to continue Olver’s work. Could that person be you?

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Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.

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I am glad to see this is going to an academic institution! As long as there is someone on staff who maintains an interest in the subject, it will have a protector. You’d think it would be a no-brainer to maintain a library special collection on any given topic, but sometimes there just aren’t people who care and things that should not be discarded wind up in a dumpster.