NIU Libraries receive grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities

The Northern Illinois University Libraries are the recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for nearly $350,000, part of $22.2 million in awards recently announced by the NEH. Other Illinois recipients this year include the Field Museum of Natural History and the Newberry Library.

Students scan items to include in the Library’s digital collection.

NIU’s project is directed by Matthew Short, Digital Collections and Metadata librarian at the university. More than 4,400 volumes of dime novels and story papers published by Street & Smith, a New York City firm in operation from 1855 to 1959, will be digitized. The project will provide images and full texts of the works, catalog records for the volumes and indexed entries for every story, series and author, to augment an existing online bibliography of dime novels that can be found at dimenovels.org. NIU will partner with academic libraries at Villanova University, Stanford University, Bowling Green State University and Oberlin College on this effort.

Short said that digitizing these works is a last chance at preserving an important part of American culture.

“Many of these publications were printed on very cheap paper and little effort went into preserving them. Often, they’ve started to disintegrate before we can even begin to scan them,” Short said. “This is a huge part of our cultural heritage that we’re talking about. Every popular genre you can think of—the western, the detective novel—they all evolved in the dime novel format. In many ways, the dime novel is also where we came to terms with what it meant to be an American—developing the narrative about our national origin and what we valued as a people—especially during the Civil War.”

In the late 19th century, publishers of cheap fiction in the United States produced thousands of dime novels that sold millions of copies through subscriptions, newsstands, train stations, dry goods stores and virtually everywhere else except bookstores. While most clothbound novels were a relative luxury that might cost a dollar or more—equivalent to a laborer’s wages for twelve hours of work—the dime novel was something that almost anyone could afford.

“Many of the earliest dime novels were pirated from Europe, including the works of Eugène Sue and Charles Dickens,” Short said. “Although the format eventually developed its own writers, like Edward L. Wheeler and Metta Victor, the major difference between the dime novel and the clothbound novel was accessibility.”

Readers included children, women, immigrants and an increasingly literate working class.

Because they were read by practically everyone, dime novels can also provide social and cultural historians with insight into what diverse groups of Americans were thinking and feeling at the end of the 19th century. They feature a surprising amount of racial diversity, with Native American, Black or Chinese characters appearing in almost every novel. While these depictions are rarely very nuanced, and often quite offensive, they are relevant to understanding how opinions about race and ethnicity have evolved since the dime novel era.

Similarly, dime novels are fertile grounds for understanding popular conceptions of gender and sexuality. Western heroes, like Denver Doll and Calamity Jane, broke long-established gender norms, not only in their appearance, but in their behavior: they resisted marriage, operated their own businesses, solved crimes and fought alongside their male companions. Detective fiction is similarly full of gender transgressions, especially through the use of disguise and secret identities.

Libraries did not collect popular fiction in the 19th century, however, viewing it as a distraction at best, and a corrupting influence at worst. NIU holds two of the largest collections of dime novels in the country, purchased from Albert Johannsen and Edward T. LeBlanc, collectors and dime novel scholars active in the 20th century. Large-scale cataloging and digitization of these collections has been underway since 2012. More than 7,800 dime novels and story papers are available on Nickels and Dimes, an online collection hosted by NIU. The Johannsen and LeBlanc dime novel collections are part of a larger popular culture collection, including comic books, science fiction and Horatio Alger materials, held in NIU Libraries’ Rare Books and Special Collections.

NIU’s “Street & Smith Project” will digitize the dime novels and story papers of the only major publisher to survive the dime novel era and successfully transition into publishing pulp magazines and comic books. The project builds on the collaboration between NIU and Villanova on the Albert Johannsen Project to digitize the publications of Beadle & Adams, the first dime novel publisher. In addition to making thousands of these publications freely and widely available for the first time anywhere in more than a century, the project will add index entries for every story, series and author to an online dime novel bibliography. The bibliography will aggregate each partner’s digital dime novel holdings, while unpacking the complex relationships that exist between the dime novels themselves.

The digitization process at NIU is done by using large overhead scanners called Zeutschels, and involves carefully scanning each page of each novel, one at a time. The materials can be very fragile, so preservation and conservation work is always part of the process. This kind of stabilization is crucial, and so is disbinding. Many of the dime novels were bound together by collectors on the aftermarket, so before they can be scanned, all of the bindings must be removed.

The exact NEH grant award for the Street & Smith Project at NIU is $348,630, and 4,409 volumes of dime novels and story papers will be digitized. From these, NIU will be digitizing 3,341 volumes, containing 77,975 pages, which will be added to Nickels and Dimes. 

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