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woman looking at circus route books

Milner Library Digital Imaging Specialist Elizabeth Harman looks at circus route books that are among 315 books recently added to the library's Digital Collections

Milner Library preserves vital history with the digitization of circus route books

With the help of one of the largest grants in the history of Milner Library, more than 300 circus route books have been digitized to preserve the rich history of one of the most important forms of American entertainment.

Previously, anyone wishing to access circus route books for research or other purposes would have had to physically visit one of three circus collections: Milner Library’s Special Collections; Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin; or The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida. The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) awarded $268,000 for the three organizations to collaborate and digitize circus route books dating from 1842–1969.

Similar to yearbooks, circus route books were published at the end of the season and contain information about people, positions, events, and cities visited. Route books also include photographs, statistics on things like miles traveled or the number of meals served daily, and even weather or unusual events that happened. Of the only 400 circus route books known to exist, this collaborative project digitized approximately 315 books.

A team effort

Just as it took a partnership between the Ringling Museum, Circus World, and Milner Library’s Special Collections to gather the more than 300 route books for digitization, this project also involved many areas of Milner Library. The digitization work was completed by Digital Imaging Specialist Elizabeth Harman in the library’s Digitization Center along with help from student workers. Library Conservator Becky Koch helped work on the most fragile books, preserving them physically so that they could be digitized.

circus route books

Once physical route books were captured in electronic files, work shifted to Cataloging and Metadata Librarian Angela Yon and her team to enter in metadata and help ensure discoverability. Yon’s work will continue into 2021 with a one-year grant extension. During this time, she and her team will conduct research to confirm performers named in the route books and create Library of Congress Name Authority Records for the performers. Additionally, they will contribute name authorities to Wikidata.

Preserving Important History

The circus was the largest form of entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This multi-institutional and collaborative digital humanities project grants route book access to anyone, anywhere.

“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 Milner Library Dean Dallas Long. “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.”

Harman echoes the importance of the history preserved by the route books. “These books include the good and the bad events that happened during a season, both within the circus and globally,” she explained. “Things that happened in the circus still impact our society today.”

The route books also house stories about performers. “We learned a lot about Josephine Demott (Robinson), a famous equestrian and how she was involved with the women’s suffrage movement along with other circus performers,” shared Harman. “She used her platform as a famous performer and as a strong woman who made her own living to support the movement.”

The current phase of the project focuses on improving metadata and discoverability of well-known performers as well as performers from historically underrepresented and marginalized groups. “The route book collection reveals performers that shaped circus culture and contributed to its success were of many different ethnicities and cultures,” explained Yon. “Thirty percent of the books feature African American musicians and bands. These musicians, including P.G. Lowery, helped bring Black music into mainstream popular culture.”

Route books have broad appeal that extends well beyond those interested in the circus. The books and their advertisements preserve graphic design historical elements. Information logged in the books included weather history for the locations visited that year. Sometimes the books even provide insight into the sociological landscape of the circus, communities visited, and America as a whole. “This collection is significant not only because it provides detailed insight into circus life,” said Yon. “It simultaneously highlights its unique role within American history, society, and how the American circus played a pivotal part in shaping American culture.”

To view the digitized circus route books and read more about this project, visit https://library.illinoisstate.edu/collections/circus-route-books/.