Special note about exhibit content
The narrative of this exhibit explores the harmful stereotypes inflicted on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC); Chinese and Japanese persons; women; and other underrepresented populations. It also references abuses perpetuated under the ideals of expansionism, white supremacy, traditional gender roles, and capitalism. The exhibit contains depictions of people representative of the cultural context in which the circus route books were created. Much of the language and imagery used in this collection and other primary sources is offensive and unacceptable. This historical language has been transcribed in its original form in order to accurately convey the past. Whenever possible, appropriate terminology is used in the description of materials.
Agency through Otherness exhibition
Milner Library is excited to announce an online exhibition exploring the diverse identities of circus performers, the culminating endeavor of a multiyear grant project focusing on the digitization of historical circus route books.
The virtual exhibition, Agency through Otherness: Portraits of Performers in Circus Route Books 1875-1925, highlights performers from underrepresented groups and places the circus in a broader historical context. The online exhibit features essays, images, interactive timelines, and map data visualizations of circus routes utilizing Native Lands, historical railroads, and population data. This project is the final segment of a four-year CLIR funded grant project, Step Right Up: Digitizing Over 100 Years of Circus Route Books.
Agency through Otherness highlights performers identified in route books, specifically those who were relegated as outcasts of society—performers who were vital to the success of circus. The circus marketed the display of difference and an alternative reality as entertainment. These notions of diversity, strangeness, abnormality, and the imaginary world spread as the circus expanded across the country. This exhibit explores how performers found agency through the lens of otherness and performance in a world that continuously sought to contain them.
The Circus Route Books collection is significant not only because it provides a detailed insight into circus life, but it simultaneously highlights its role within American history and society. The American circus played a pivotal part in shaping American culture. Route books are a rich resource for scholars not only in circus, but also in American studies, history and academic interdisciplinary studies of sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, geography, race and ethnic studies, cultural studies, performing arts, gender studies, and more.
Beyond the exhibit
In addition to digitizing route books and creating this exhibit, project team members also created Library of Congress Name Authority Records and Wikidata items for prominent performers and circuses from the digitized route books, focusing on performers from underrepresented populations. Doing so disambiguates performer names and creates linked open data for optimal discoverability which can be used by patrons and scholars in their research.
As part of this endeavor, Milner Library staff that worked on this project also participated in the initiative to implement identity management principles with Library of Congress Name Authority Records and Wikidata with the Program for Cooperative Cataloging Wikidata Pilot Project joining 70 other academic and cultural institutions across the globe.
The team also researched and recorded the geographic coordinates for the city/town stops on circus route itineraries. Recording and making this geographic information openly available will enable researchers to create and use or reuse the collection’s data in new imaginative ways. This information was used to create data visualizations and map narratives in the exhibit.
Rebecca Fitzsimmons, Special Collections Librarian
Elizabeth Harman, Digital Imaging Specialist
Elizabeth C. Hartman, Digital Project and Metadata Research Specialist
Mariah Wahl, Digital Project and Metadata Research Specialist
Angela Yon, Cataloging and Metadata Librarian & Principal Investigator