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Making it work: Maureen Brunsdale

image of Maureen Brunsdale

Maureen Brunsdale oversees a treasure. She protects its more than half a million pieces shelved in rooms at the top of Milner Library. And, more than anything, she wants to share that treasure with the world.

Brunsdale is the head of Special Collections at Milner. Surrounded by posters, books, photos, letters and objects, she delves every day into an invaluable wealth of history. “It’s the stories I love. Not just the ones you find in the collections, but those of people who visit here.”

Taking appointments from people all over the world, Brunsdale and her assistant, Mark Schmitt, work to pull items of interest for researchers, students and the public. Whether combing through the letter in which Otto Ringling convinced his brothers to buy the Barnum & Bailey Circus, or finding one of the first works of fiction from a female author written in 1621, Brunsdale keeps in mind that it is all for the public. “We are here to preserve these stories in order to make sure people can learn from them and share them,” she said.

A vast collection of items on the circus is one of four special collections Brunsdale oversees. “A bit ago, we had a gentleman from Japan studying the circus elephant Jumbo,” said Brunsdale, who co-authored the book The Bloomington-Normal Circus Legacy: The Golden Age of Aerialists. “He was amazed that we have a larger collection on the topic than the Library of Congress.”

Donated and acquired over the years, a huge chunk of the collection comes from Sverre Braathen, a lawyer by trade, but also a passionate circus historian who wrote and kept thousands of letters. Past the pole which led the parades when the circus came to town, and the small throne used in a circus spectacle prior to 1919, Brundale pointed to one gray box. “These are Braathen’s correspondence with Luisita Leers.”

A first edition of Gone with the Wind, signed by Margaret Mitchell

A first edition of Gone with the Wind, signed by Margaret Mitchell

One of the center ring stars of Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus, Leers performed as a strong woman. When visiting family in Germany just before World War II, Adolf Hitler refused to let a star of her caliber leave the country. “Her letters dwindle during the war but pick up after it. She writes to let Braathen know she and her family are starving and have no shoes. Those left in Germany had so little.” Leers tried to come back to the circus after the war, but was too malnourished for too many years. Instead, she began a successful translation business. “She spoke seven languages from her journeys with the circus. I love that we have stories like hers here.”

Along with the circus collection, the shelves stretching through the back room are also dedicated to a collection of children’s literature and historical textbooks, as well as a collection of 20,000 rare books. Sliding a mahogany-covered book from a shelf, Brunsdale smiles. “I was just looking through the collection one day, when this caught my eye,” she said, carefully pulling back the cover. On the first page is a typed inscription with a signature by the book’s author – Margaret Mitchell. “This is a first edition Gone With the Wind,” said Brunsdale. “And it has been tucked in here for years.”

Discovering hidden treasures is all part of the job for Brunsdale, who took over as the head of Special Collections in 2008, the first full-time director since 1986, when Robert Sokan retired. “Bluntly put, he was a sage,” said Brunsdale of Sokan. “He was brilliant and seemed to have this uncanny sense of what was going to be hot or important.” These days, state budgets make Brunsdale’s work to build the collection more of a collaborative effort than Sokan faced. “We work a lot with others to find items,” she said.

The final special collection is one that is dear to Brunsdale, the Abraham Lincoln collection that came from Harold K. Sage. “There are so many collections on Lincoln, but ours is dedicated to the entirety of his life – his education, his beliefs, his views on religion and his personal life with Mary Todd, for example,” said Brunsdale. “It garners interest.”

The Lincoln collection also includes letters from sitting presidents on the legacy and influence of the 16th president. “The day we received the letter from President Barack Obama, who called Lincoln a ‘personal hero,’ was one of those days you give a gasp of delight,” said Brunsdale. “Again, this job isn’t about objects, but about the stories those objects can tell.”