By LENORE SOBOTA
NORMAL, Ill. (AP) — Maureen Brunsdale was in Sarasota, Florida for an induction ceremony at the Circus Ring of Fame when the announcement was made that Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was ending its 146-year run.
“I’m driving home and my phone is lighting up,” said Brunsdale, who, as Special Collections librarian, oversees ISU’s circus collection. “People started calling and really mourning.”
Brunsdale said the impending end of what’s been billed as “the Greatest Show on Earth” makes the work of the Special Collections staff even more important.
“We are tasked with the preservation of the history of the circus,” she said.
Amid the photos, posters and other circus artifacts at Milner Library are 100 to 115 circus route books dating back to the 19th century.
Recently, ISU received a three-year, $268,000 grant to work with Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota to digitize more than 300 circus route books in their collections.
“This is our first collaborative venture,” said Milner’s associate dean, Dallas Long, describing ISU and its partners as “the Big Three of circus collections.”
Of about 400 route books known to exist, 315 are in the three collections, according to Brunsdale.
The grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources will allow the digitized information to be made available online to researchers, historians, writers, teachers and circus buffs.
“They provide such a window into the world called ‘circus,”’ said Brunsdale.
They also are “rich in historical and sociological information,” said Long, who is project coordinator.
Mark Schmitt, a senior library specialist at Milner, said the route books were published at the end of each season and included photos and information about the route, including dignitaries who visited a show and other notable happenings.
“You got mundane things but also horrible things — accidents, illness outbreaks,” said Schmitt.
At one time, Bloomington-Normal was a winter hub for circus performers, particularly trapeze artists and aerialists.
One of them was Minnie Fisher, whose 50-year trapeze career was “unheard of for a woman — or a man, even,” said Brunsdale.
She described an entry in one route book, which noted that Fisher was hit by a large rock, apparently thrown by a strike sympathizer and intended for Fisher’s cab driver.
Some books, such as an 1894 book in ISU’s collection, have an “ethnological congress” that lists people in the circus according to their country of origin, said Brunsdale.
After the books are digitized, people will be able to search for information by a specific name, town, circus or other terms. Contextual information also will be provided, along with links to related information in the collections, such as photographs.
A temporary digital image technician will be hired at ISU with the grant money to digitize the ISU and Baraboo route books, said Long. The Ringling Museum of Art will do its own work.
“Quality control is going to be an important part of the process,” said Long, adding a special camera is used to take an image of each page and image editing software will be used to help make pages more legible where necessary.
Although the Ringling circus will have its last shows on May 21, Brunsdale believes the circus will live on.
“Circus is an ever-evolving, ever-changing thing,” said Brunsdale. “There will be something in its wake. It’s not dead.”
Youth circuses, including ISU’s own Gamma Phi Circus, continue to be popular, she notes. Smaller shows continue along with larger productions such as the Cirque du Soleil.
But one can see a sense of loss in Brunsdale’s eyes as she talks about what circuses used to be.
“It was entertainment for the masses. It was movies before movies. It was how music moved around the country,” she said.
Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, http://bit.ly/2kIXwZh
Information from: The Pantagraph, http://www.pantagraph.com