The Elephant Tale of Data

by
Kristin Lee, Tufts University
Liz Settoducato, Tufts University

Earlier last year when I asked my colleague Liz Settoducato, Engineering Librarian here at the Tisch Library, if she would be interested in looking into Jumbo the Elephant with me we didn’t realize it would become a bit of a weird obsession. A simple idea to use data about Tufts University’s beloved mascot for instruction sparked research into the circus, P. T. Barnum and his shenanigans, taxidermy, and scientific specimens. The more we read, the more we wanted to know.

This project has become a place where our personal journeys to librarianship collide. My background is in science and I have long been fascinated by the idea of physical objects as data. I also love maps, a perfect way to present the adventures of an elephant who had his own personal train car. Liz comes from the world of gender studies and archives. She understands how our fascination with different forms of entertainment impact scholarship and research, and why it is essential to study this as part of the experience of being human. Together we can look at our subject, the sadly doomed star of the London Zoo so fiercely pursued by circus showman P. T. Barnum, who met his end in a train accident in St. Thomas Ontario in 1885, as the pop culture icon and flesh and bone creature that he was.

Chasing down information hasn’t been easy. There are circus handbills, correspondence, newspaper articles, songs, and images of Jumbo in collections all across the country. But we wanted more. Jumbo became the mascot of Tufts University posthumously, when his stuffed hide was donated to the Barnum Museum of Natural History in 1889 by Mr. Barnum himself, after travelling with the circus (The Story of Jumbo). There are pieces of Jumbo, King of Elephants, in collections all over the country (I just found out about this piece of tusk at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan while writing this ). His heart was purchased by Cornell University, but all they have left is the jar, a fact which caused Liz and me to have a conversation about just how you could lose a 40 lb elephant heart. All of these specimens were once a whole, living elephant, a collection that requires each piece for context, and bringing them back together (at least virtually) has become a bit of a mission.

What we call “Our Eccentric Jumbo Research Project” isn’t really that outlandish in the context of librarian research at all. We are using tools from the digital humanities to explore texts, like the biography of Jumbo by his keeper Matthew Scott, to try and figure out how the people around him understood him. We are thinking about how P. T. Barnum, purveyor of “humbug” and serial hyperbolist, spread misinformation about his prized attraction to get the attention of crowds and how that affected the public view of wildlife in places they could only imagine in the late 19th century. We are tracking down data from studies of Jumbo‚Äôs bones and his tail (the only piece that survived after the rest of his hide was destroyed when Barnum Hall at Tufts burned down in 1975) to better understand how he was treated during his short life. Librarianship is about not only providing our communities with what they need, but giving them access to worlds they didn’t even know were out there and allowing a sense of wonder and whimsy to infiltrate the research process.

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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