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Victorian Popular Culture

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Choice, March 2009

Adam Matthew Digital conjures up a dynamic digital collection of unique primary sources describing popular entertainment in the US, the UK, and Europe in the period from 1779 to 1930. This graphically rich portal currently offers access to only one collection, Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic, but two others--Circuses, Sideshows and Freaks; and Music Hall, Theatre and Popular Entertainment--are scheduled for 2009 and 2010, respectively. The 300-plus artifacts in the current collection, selected from manuscripts at the Senate House Library at the University of London and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, are curiosities culled for their rarity and interest for scholars in the areas of magic, spiritualism, animal magnetism, mesmerism, and parapsychology. Included are high-quality color scans of performance posters, pamphlets, journals and magazines of the period, such as The Zoist: A Journal of Cerebral Physiology and Mesmerism and Their Applications to Human Welfare and The Sphinx: A Monthly Magazine for Magicians and Illusionists, as well as eight volumes of Houdini's scrapbooks.

Visitors may conduct a general search of the collection or search specifically in fields such as title, author, source library, and document type/subtype. Also available is a full list of the contents, an alphabetical list, and lists by library and document type, along with a list of popular searches. The sleight of hand that enables one to view documents is impressive. One may zoom into and move around them, view the scan or a transcription of a document, and download a PDF or print it. Further resources include an introductory essay by Peter Otto (Univ. of Melbourne), a slide-show generator, a clever drag-and-drop chronology, a glossary (ever wonder who coined the term "ectoplasm"?), biographies, and a bibliography. An extensive help section offers search tips and advice for teachers. The database itself is by no means inexpensive, but the collections provided are truly unparalleled and available nowhere else. While only those who wish to delve deeper into the world of magic and spiritualist séances maay be spurred to subscribe, those who do will be treated to one of the finest digital collections available on the subject.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-level undergraduates through faculty/researchers.

Reprinted with permission from CHOICE, copyright by the American Library Association.

C. Cox
Choice, March 2009

Library Journal, August 2015

CONTENT Victorian Popular Culture (VPC) is a portal into digitized primary source materials on popular entertainment in North America, Britain, and Europe between 1779 and 1930. Material (most of which has been digitized in color) includes: ephemera (e.g., ticket stubs, postcards, newspaper cuttings), moving images, pamphlets, periodicals, photographs, playbills, posters, programs, scrapbooks, and songbooks, with a focus on rare printed content and visual resources.

Printed items are full-text searchable, and visual and manuscript resources have been keyword indexed. Also available here are secondary sources to support teaching and research.

The file is organized into separate but cross-searchable modules on Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic; Circuses, Sideshows and Freaks; Music Hall, Theatre and Popular Entertainment; and Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema. These modules can be purchased separately or together.

Source libraries, archives, and special collections include the University of Texas (especially the W.H Crain Barnum & Bailey Circus Collection, Joe E. Ward Circus Collection; the Harry Houdini Scrapbooks) and the National Archives of the UK.

USABILITY The homepage features a distinct welcome, with a search box embedded in the title bar. A toolbar below contains buttons for Introduction, Documents, Explore, Visual Sources, and Help. Below these is a rotating carousel of images showcasing VPC’s four modules. This page also boasts several links: Take a Tour, Guide to Archival Collections, Chronology, Essays, Popular Searches, and Optical Entertainments Exhibition.

Taking a tour, I was invited to “Delve into different areas of entertainment in contextual essays by our Consultant Editors, explore significant dates and events in the history of popular culture and the Victorian world in an interactive chronology." This section features excellent scholarly, illustrated contextual essays for the four portal modules; biographies (brief, informative discussions of “the key figures in the world of entertainment and popular culture in this period”); venues (a glossary of “key entertainment venues in America and Britain that were in operation during this period”); and the gallery (searchable thumbnail images of items in the collection, arranged alphabetically).

Having completed a tour, I selected the Documents button in the top toolbar and a screen appeared with evocative illustrations for each of the four modules, with an option to View All Documents. This led me to an alphabetical listing of all the entries in the file by title, with a thumbnail image, a publication date (if known), a document-type label, and the name of the module in which it appears. Also highlighted are three large buttons leading researchers to Optical Entertainments, Early Cinema Footage, and Music Hall Songs.

Next, I lost myself among Optical Entertainments, which includes metamorphic views, protean views, panoramas and dioramas, lick books, mutoscopes, phenakistiscopes, zoetropes, praxinoscopes, and much more. The file contains images of the inventions as well as demonstrations of how they worked.

Early Cinema Footage clips are from the British Film Institute (BFI) National Archive, spanning the formative years of film, 1894–1926. Browsing Music Hall Songs, I listened to Harry Champion’s January 1911 recording of “I’m Henery the Eighth,” the same song covered in 1965 by British pop band Herman’s Hermits. Who knew it originated in a 1911 music hall?

As a devoted fan of Murdoch Mysteries, I searched for “regurgitator” and found Harry Price’s Leaves from a Psychist’s Case-Book. Price is the founder and honorary director of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research. The chapter noted that, “Mrs. Duncan was a regurgitator, i.e., a person who could swallow things and bring them up at will—a curious faculty which is not so rare as is generally supposed.”

In the Explore section, I found the Interactive Chronology with no glitch; it provides superb historical context as well as placing inventions and persons chronologically.

PRICING Adam Matthew titles are available for a one-time purchase price with no annual maintenance or cost-per-user fees, although there is an annual hosting fee of 0.5 percent of purchase price. The purchase price is determined by FTE, purchase history, and Carnegie Classification. A “typical” purchase price for all four modules of VPC ranges between $26,100 and $87,000, depending upon the institution.

VERDICT Victorian Popular Culture, which can be easily used by both novice readers and scholars, offers a very large slice of American and British history and culture. Libraries serving serious Victorian era researchers will want this resource.

Cheryl LaGuardia is a Research Librarian for the Widener Library at Harvard University and author of Becoming a Library Teacher (Neal-Schuman, 2000).

Cheryl LaGuardia
Library Journal, August 2015

Choice, January 2017
Web Clipping Print View | Choice Connect

The relaunch of Adam Matthew Digital's resource of English, British, and European popular entertainment from the 19th and early-20th centuries is as engaging as the material it presents.  When this remarkable portal was previously reviewed in 2009 (CH, Mar'09, 46-3599), only one of the four modules was completed, and the amount of materials available was scant.  Now, all four modules (Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic; Circuses, Sideshows and Freaks; Music Hall, Theatre and Popular Entertainment; Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema) are complete and offer a rare glimpse into the time period (1779–1930) that they portray.  The renowned archives that provide the source material—now expanded but still primarily British—include the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature at the University of London and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, offering subscribers access to two of the world's largest collections of magical memorabilia, among them Houdini's papers and scrapbooks; the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield; the Lambeth Archives in London; and the British Film Institute National Archive, among others.

The goal of the portal is to demonstrate just how interconnected these four worlds were, and the cross-searchability and thematic areas available for exploration help the researcher see just that dimension.  The collections provide access to a variety of primary source materials, including photographs, posters, ephemera, sheet music, postcards, audio clips, and rare film footage.  The relaunch adds a number of new features, such as viewable metadata for each object, an interactive chronology with direct links into the database resource material, transcribed recordings of music hall songs, and amazing visual demonstrations of moving picture objects such as magic lanterns, along with the ability to virtually handle objects via a 360-degree viewer.  Searching and browsing are relatively easy, and most documents are full-text searchable.  The presentation of results is intuitive, and researchers using the archive have the ability to select items, add selections to a light box to create a personal slideshow, or export selections as PDFs.  Also included are essays on each period from scholars and editorial board members in each discipline, and brief information regarding venues and biographies.

While this resource may seem a bit pricey for the average library, the resources Adam Matthew Digital presents are still unavailable through any other resource that this reviewer is aware of.  The expanded portal will be of interest to scholars in a variety of subject areas, including the expected music and theater fields, but also to those pursuing research in art, sociology, and religion.
Web Clipping Print View | Choice Connect

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-level undergraduates and above.

C.Cox, University of Northern Iowa
Choice, January 2017

British Association for Victorian Studies, December 2016

Adam Matthew Digital’s resource Victorian Popular Culture ‘invit[es] users into the darkened halls, small backrooms, big tops and travelling venues’ to enable them to explore the ‘spectacular shows and bawdy burlesque, to the world of magic, spiritualist séances, optical entertainments and the first moving pictures’ which were to be found there. Victorian Popular Culture contains a wide range of source material relating to popular entertainment in America, Britain and Europe (although Britain appears to be the primary source) in the period from 1779 to 1930. The aim is to demonstrate the interconnectivity of entertainment worlds and is very well met through cross-searchability. With a mix of primary and secondary sources, for anyone with an interest in popular culture and entertainment of the Victorian period, this is a must use resource with invaluable resources and information which has been complied by experts in various relevant fields.

The link of public engagement between the varied and interested editorial board has provided an online archive which will bring together academics from different fields and with different periods of interest to enjoy a simplistic, easy to use archive which has been previously missing from the field. The archive has successfully collated resources from some of the biggest archives available, as well as including private archives with permission from current owners. These private archives would have been difficult if not impossible to consult prior to the completion of Victorian Popular Culture which only works to give the archive added value to its users.

First time users to the site may find logging in difficult, as the area is not made obvious on the homepage. However, once access is granted, the portal opens a menagerie of resources to explore. The Homepage welcomes the user with examples of resources to be discovered. Easy to navigate, there are multiple exploration options; some more detailed and complex, and some more simplified depending on how each individual user wishes to explore the site. The ‘Introduction’ section will be of particular interest to new users as here can be found all of the basic information needed to understand and use the site. Anyone struggling to use the site should consult the ‘Take a Tour’ area which provides an introduction to the mechanics of the pages. Alternatively, there is the ‘Page by Page Guide’ in the ‘Help’ area.

Split into four main sections (Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic; Music Hall, Theatre and Popular Entertainment; Circuses, Sideshows and Freaks; Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainment and the Advent of Cinema) the archive’s separation of resources allows users to quickly navigate towards the information they require. Searchable document types include but are not limited to rare books, scrapbooks, pamphlets, songbooks and ephemera including newspapers and ticket stubs.

Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic provides printed material on the world of mediums and magicians alike. Magic, séances, escapology and exploration into debunking the weird and wonderful are all contained within this area of the site including resources on the work of Harry Houdini (1874-1962). Music Hall, Theatre and Popular Entertainment includes some of the largest and most extensive information and resource availability on the site, housing playbills, advertisements, recordings and almost anything you can think of relating to Victorian theatre both legitimate and illegitimate. Circuses, Sideshows and Freaks provides one of the most fun and colourful sections of the site and regardless of whether research is required in this area, it is worth looking through the visual ephemera on offer here. The most immersive section of the website comes in the Moving Pictures section as here is the largest selection of resources available to see and hear. Here you are able to visually immerse yourself in things you have only ever heard of, including the amazing talent of silent actors such as Charlie Chaplin. Each area of the site brings something different to the arena of Victorian Culture and yet all are able to come to the same table to colour and provide visual aid to what many may only have heard of and wondered about. Something which is also useful is that each area can be purchased individually should one area be of more interest than others.

The archive goes beyond simply hosting resources relating to each topic, with secondary sources including background introductions and essays to contextualise the information found within the archive. As well as introductions and essays, the Chronology (a link to which can be found on the Homepage) opens a timeline stretching from 1800-1928 and provides a visual history of various key events including Key Publications, Cultural Contexts and People to name but a few. Each category is colour co-ordinated to allow for quick identification. Although not all encompassing, the timeline makes it possible to place resources from the archive into contemporary cultural context adding value for those researching cultural history. The Additional Features section also puts some of what you see on the site into practice with their visual gallery.

Audio tracks are accompanied by lyrics which is of great assistance in some cases due to the quality of the sound recordings. All printed material is full-text searchable and other material has been keyword indexed for simple use. More information is also available on each of the archives that resources have been drawn from should anyone require this information. 

Overall, Victorian Popular Culture is an invaluable resource to any researcher or teacher with an interest in popular entertainment in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries presenting resources brought together which would otherwise be difficult to access. Although the site does not hold information on every theatre production, or every early cinema moment, to be able to physically see the Victorian theatre, circus and cinema in action is an invaluable experience. For those with an interest in Victorian Culture, or any of the individual categories contained within Victorian Popular Culture, this digital resource is useful, interesting, and invaluable with its user friendly interface and mix of resources. Adam Matthew have achieved their goal of creating an interconnected and engaging resource. 

Philippa Abbott (University of Sunderland)
British Association for Victorian Studies, December 2016