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Milner receives $268,000 grant to save circus history

image of circus route book form Milner Library Special Collections at Illinois State University.

Circus Route Books were used to document the travels of circuses in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The largest grant in the history of Milner Library at Illinois State University will ensure a wealth of circus history will be preserved.

Milner Library’s Special Collections and its partners will receive $268,000 from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to digitize more than 300 circus route books, dating from 1842-1969.

Only 400 circus route books are known to exist. Similar to yearbooks, route books contain information about people, positions, events, and the show’s season. Through the CLIR’s Digitizing Hidden Collections program, Milner Library, Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin,  and The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, will work together to digitize 315 circus books from their collections and create a single portal to access these important resources.

“I’m thrilled to be working with our knowledgeable librarians at Milner Library and with our colleagues at Circus World and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art on this multi-institutional, collaborative, digital-humanities project,” said Dallas Long, associate dean at Milner and project coordinator. He added that the goal of the project is to provide online access for researchers who are currently limited by physical access to these primary sources.

After digitization, these route books will become a storehouse of data useful to historians, researchers, writers, teachers, and family historians. Long noted that currently, circus route books are difficult to access for researchers, and no other publication contains as much unique information.

Published at the end of the show’s season, route books listed personnel by department, the circus route (cities and towns played), and many times included photographs and statistics, such as miles traveled, number of cities visited, or meals served daily. In some, a daily diary of weather, ticket sales, and unusual events was included.

“The circus can be used as a cultural lens where issues of race, big business, gender, otherness, nationhood, and views of empire can be explored,” said Long. “It was the largest form of entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th century.” Long conjured an image of miles-long street parades and mammoth performances staged in colossal canvas tents. “Audiences watched daring performers, heard new musical forms, viewed the world of animals, and saw people from foreign lands, as well as seeing for the first time electric lights and automobiles.”

CLIR is an independent, nonprofit organization that forges strategies to enhance research, teaching, and learning environments in collaboration with libraries, cultural institutions, and communities of higher learning. CLIR is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Founded in 1969, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation endeavors to strengthen, promote, and, where necessary, defend the contributions of the humanities and the arts to human flourishing and to the well-being of diverse and democratic societies by supporting exemplary institutions of higher education and culture as they renew and provide access to an invaluable heritage of ambitious, path-breaking work. Additional information is available at mellon.org.

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