Digitizing Route Books from the Golden Age of the American Circus – Hyperallergic
Before cinema, television, and even radio, Americans had the circus. â€œCircuses were the entertainmentÂ in America, and you didnâ€™tÂ have to go far, because they were always coming to you,â€Â Maureen Brunsdale, special collections andÂ rare books librarian at Illinois State University (ISU), told Hyperallergic.
Brunsdale is working on a major digitization project through the Council on Library and Information Resourcesâ€™Â Digitizing Hidden Collections initiative. Focused on circus route books dating from 1842Â to 1969, the digital humanities project provides unique insight into this traveling entertainment of the masses. â€œAt the end of the season, the larger shows â€” and some of the smaller shows, too â€” would compile what was like a yearbook, a day-by-date book of things that happened during the season,â€Â Brunsdale explained. These route books would chronicle the weather, the performers, the employees, the roustabouts who erected the tents, and even riots and accidents.
â€œThese would be sold toÂ the fans and anyone who wanted to relive the glory of the show they had seen that previous year, and perhaps ramp up anticipation for theÂ coming season,â€ Brunsdale said. â€œFor todayâ€™s researchers, itâ€™s a way to get back intoÂ that time and find out what lifeÂ was like.Â Itâ€™s a great way to relive history.â€
The three-year grant for the digitization was announced last monthÂ and will concentrate on over 300 route books at ISUâ€™s Milner Library,Â Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin, andÂ the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida.Â Only aroundÂ 400 circus route books are known to survive.
â€œTheyâ€™ve never been digitized before,â€ Brunsdale said. â€œItâ€™s an incredible thing for researchers.Â You get history, you get geography, you get marketing, you get business, finance, insurance; you could name any academic department, and you could probably tie it to circusÂ somehow.â€
For instance, thereÂ areÂ the sociological and ethical questionsÂ of eras when â€œexoticâ€ people from Africa and Asia were displayed as oddities, as well as the anatomical exhibitions of the â€œfreak shows.â€ In the books, circusÂ histories are sometimes accompanied by rare photographs and descriptive text, as well as details of local life that may not have been documented elsewhere. Brunsdale related an anecdote about aerialist Minnie Fisher, who was riding in a horse-drawn taxi during a taxi strikeÂ when she was hit in the head by a protesterâ€™s rock. Luckily she managed to maintain her balance duringÂ her evening performance, for which she received a standing ovation.Â â€œWho knew all of that was happening in this little western town where the circusÂ was for the day?â€ Brunsdale said.
For now, the project is in its very beginning phases, butÂ eventually, scholars and the public will be able to search all the route books by keyword, whether â€œtrapeze artistâ€ or â€œelephant.â€ And Brunsdale is encouraged that some unknown circus route books have already emerged fromÂ obscurity thanks to coverage ofÂ the project andÂ all of its parts.Â â€œWeâ€™ve come to know that when people say that their life is a circus, it should mean itâ€™s a well-oiled machine,â€ sheÂ said.
Read more about the circus route digitization project atÂ Illinois State University.
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