This May, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will be ending their 146-year run with one final show at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island. As the famous circus company shutters its traveling doors (a result of high costs and dipping ticket sales), Illinois State University’s Milner Library is working to preserve the industry's unique culture. The library has spent years protecting circus history by digitizing thousands of posters, photographs, and Kodachrome slides. After receiving a $268,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, the library can now expand their online collection by digitizing over 300 circus route books spanning from 1842 to 1969. The project, which will take about three years, will help preserve the legacy of the circus for generations to come.
Circus route books are usually written at the end of a season and give a detailed summary of the circus's goings-on. They chronicle everything from the crowd sizes to the names of performers and crew. Being able to read these extensive works gives readers a good sense of what happened at the shows, even if they weren't able to attend themselves. “It seeps into your soul, holding that letter,” Maureen Brunsdale, Milner Library’s head of special collections and rare books told Smithsonian. “[The route books] gives us a real snapshot of what the circus looked like."
In order to get these books online for the circus-curious public, the library is teaming up with two other big-time circus history collections: Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. Together, the trio will work to digitize 315 route books so that readers can peruse the collection by specific names, circus shows, and towns.
Milner Library's Circus and Allied Arts Collection was founded in 1955 as a means to document the relationship between Bloomington-Normal (twin cities in Central Illinois) and the circus. In the 1870s, trapeze artists set up a community and would practice in barns in the Bloomington area. Today, the library has over 8000 books, making it possibly the largest circus collection on Earth.
While the route books are slowly being uploaded, you can take some time and enjoy the library's Passion of the Circus digital collection, which is filled with Sverre O. Braathen's Kodachromes and black and white photographs from the 1930s through 1960s. The images can be sorted by performer names, circuses, locations, stage names, and subjects. The highly addicting collection is perfect for nostalgic circus lovers who need a fix before their next Big Top show.
Used with permission from Illinois State University's Special Collections, Milner Library.