Click_for_citation_informationDime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls


Reviewed: December, 2003
Mounted: January 12, 2004
By Cheryl Lemus

Stanford’s Dime Novel and Penny Dreadful collection web site is a wonderful array of the dime novel series published during the mid nineteenth to the early twentieth century. As many archives are increasingly using the Internet to exhibit their collections, Stanford’s addition to the plethora of collections on the web, is welcomed. Although websites cannot replace the feel of conducting research in an archive or the need for an archive’s preservation work, this website demonstrates that access to a collection via the Internet can save interested users time and money. For the most, the website is a solid foundation for what a collection web site can be. Most importantly it is user friendly and will be useful to secondary and post secondary students who want a brief overview of the topic as well as scholars, particularly those researching the cover art and imagery of the Dime Novel and Penny Dreadful. Scholars who need to view the complete texts of this material will, at this time, still have to see the collection in person.

Stanford’s website, however, does highlight some of the pitfalls that collection websites can make. One of the site's major weaknesses is its organization. For example, the home page gives a very brief history of the dime novel and penny dreadful, while giving specific recommendations for entry into the site: browsing the collection, taking a guided tour, and reading a selection of dime novels. But, these are not included in the main navigation buttons on the left side of the home page. The navigation buttons only allow a user to view a time line, take a guided tour, read about the creation of the website, and contact the dime novel archival staff, plus search the images and selected text on the website. While one can get to browsing the collection and reading a selection of dime novels after clicking the search button, why not simply add these home page text links to the main navigation structure as they provide direct access to the site’s main attractions? An additional frustration with the navigation is the fact that the navigation buttons on the left are not consistent throughout the site.

For the casual Web user, who may want to be shown around the site, the guided tours are a good place to start. The site contains three guided tours: Guided Tour of a Cover, The Stanford Collection, and the Print Process. The first, Guided Tour of a Cover, is broken down into three main components: the author, publisher, and dime novel heroes. Each details the most influential players in this phenomenon and gives a short bibliography. While the bibliographies are meant to function as a works consulted list for each section, a link to a page with a comprehensive list of books analyzing dime novels and the social context, in which they thrived and died, could have rounded out this portion nicely. Nevertheless, the three short essays in this tour are clearly written, nicely illustrated, providing the user with more history behind the dime novel.

The Stanford collection tour provides a brief background on the acquisition of the 8,000 piece collection, while providing information on and links to four other dime novel collections in the nation. This could be a great tool, but upon clicking on the links, only two out of four worked. Granted, with the names of the archives provided, a user could probably track down where they have moved, but an archival website is only as good as the information it provides. If this website is offering this service, then it is important to make sure the information is current.

Lastly, the Print Process tour details the different processes and evolution behind the printing of images in dime novels in the nineteenth century. The tour highlights: wood engraving, line cuts, stereotyping and electrotyping, relief halftones, chromoxylography, and color halftones, focusing on key mechanisms and technological innovations that affected this genre over time. The essay is followed by another bibliography. While the tour is quite interesting, particularly to those who are more technically fluent, what is missing is a detailed analysis of how these different processes may have affected other aspects of the genre and its reception.

The main strength of the web site is its digitzed primary sources. The site provides several different avenues for accessing these primary sources. First, a user can “browse the Collection’s [2,364] Images.” Browsing brings up thumbnail images in groups of six, which the user can click on for detailed citation information, a larger image, and a link to an even larger, higher resolution, “reference image.” This page also lists hypertextual subject headings that, when clicked, search the collection for all images associated with that subject. “Browsing the Collection by Feature” brings up an alphabetical list of “salient” features in the cover art. These features range from settings to animals depicted, from objects to activities, and more. Each feature is followed by a number indicating how many of the collection’s 2,364 images contain that particular feature. Clicking on the feature name brings up thumbnails, which may be clicked as under the “Browse the Collection’s Images.” “Browsing the Collection by Title” is slightly confusing. Clicking on it, one finds another alphabetical list of titles followed by what one first assumes is the number of images associated with that title. However, clicking on one of the links revealed that the number actually indicated the number of titles in the 8,000 piece physical collection of dime novels and penny dreadfuls. From the detailed description of individuals titles, there is a link that one may click to see the “images related to this title.” However, clicking on that link often reveals that there are no images associated with the title. Within many of the browsing features, one is presented with the opportunity to “jump” to a particular group of thumbnails; however, this jumping button does not always work and may end up taking you to a 404, file not located page.

The final search ability on the page is not of the images, but of the texts of the nine dime novels that they have rekeyed for the Web site. These are worth a stop, when visiting the Web site. While there are no explicit reasons stated for why these nine novels were chosen from the 8,000 in the collection, one might assume that they are the best representation of the genre. Reading a dime novel from cover to cover, gives the user a wonderful sense of the language, the storyline, and the imagery of the time. While rekeying is a nice feature, allowing for easy reading, for research purposes, it would have been nice to include digitized images of the rekeyed pages, not only to give the user a sense of page layout but also to allow her to check for rekeying errors. Additionally, while the “Credits” page contains a “Technological Overview” none of the links, including those explaining the digitization process in general, are active.

The last feature worth visiting is a hypertextual timeline, which helps place the dime novel in its historical context and provides some analysis. Containing forty-six links to additional tidbits of information and images of covers illustrative of the point being made, the time line begins with 1860, when the first dime novel was published, and ends with 1920, when pulp fiction rose in popularity, ending the dime novel’s reign. The time line itself is visually quite nice, containing thumbnails of cover details and other images from the time. In this creative fashion, it places the dime novel within a historical context. One example is the time line’s list of the Chinese Exclusion act in 1882. Clicking takes the user to a brief description and analysis of the act, two examples of the depiction of Chinese on dime novel covers, and a brief analysis of those depictions. While these entries are quite impressive on their own, the site would have benefited from an over-arching discussion of the importance of the dime novel within nineteenth century culture and the complex ways in which it both reflected and influenced that culture.

The Timeline’s analysis of particular dime novel imagery points to one of the site’s weaknesses, the inclusion of materials explicitly designed for students. It would have been helpful, for example, if the site had included a guide to reading images, or a selection of exercises geared toward reading select images in the collection that a teacher could easily incorporate into her classroom. And, although the site points to a few other collections of dime novels, as discussed earlier, there are no other efforts on the site toward promoting a community of interest.

Overall, the website is fairly user friendly. Even though it has weaknesses in its architecture, for the most part, users can find their way through the site. Creating useful websites for archival collections is slowly evolving, and this website exhibits that evolution. How wonderful it would be to have all 8,000-dime novels listed, retyped, and imaged, making a trip to the archives unnecessary; a dream that may be realized in the future.

Point Assessment for Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls
(more information on PHRC's rating system is available)

Basic Criteria
Permanence and Timeliness10/15
Value Added Features12/15
Technical Aspects10/15
Overall Impression8/10

Public History Specific Criteria
Interpretation of Materials30/40
Primary Source Documents16/20
Promotion of a Community of Interest0/20

Total: 127 points -- 3.5 Earths

Cheryl Lemus ( is a graduate student at large at Northern Illinois University.

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Last updated on  January 12, 2004