Getting Loud in the Archives

by Kristin Lee, Tisch Library, Tufts University

I got to spend last week in the Archives of The Ringling Museum, home of records related to circus and the Ringling Brothers. In addition to escaping chilly Boston for sunny Sarasota, FL, I also got to meet up with an amazing, brilliant group of women who are also doing research in various areas of circus and sideshow. We all met last summer at the Circus Historical Society (CHS) Convention in Baraboo, WI, and decided that a joint trip would be a way to get some research done and save some money.

I went into this trip without a well-defined research question. My interest is in collecting and pulling together data about the circus to create a foundation that other researchers can use for their work. I want the ledgers, routes, and receipts; basically, anything that comes in the form of a table. I have some parameters around my research (Illinois State University’s Milner Library’s Special Collections has contracts and permits for 1914, so that has become a focus), but mostly I just want to turn these facts into data that a computer can do something with. For my early forays into circus I used the resources on the CHS website, so it was nice to see the beautiful, flowing handwriting in the ledgers and the details on the route cards that I didn’t see in the transcribed routes.

The Archives at the Ringling are in the Tibbals Learning Center, which is also the home of circus exhibits and The Howard Bros. Circus, a miniature circus created by Howard Tibbals. When our group arrived at the Archives on our first of three research days we were greeted by the staff there with warm handshakes and enthusiasm. As someone who has a day job assisting researchers it was a little overwhelming to be treated like I was a real researcher in my own right (cue impostor syndrome). Everyone was accommodating and helpful but also, I think more importantly, as excited about our research as we were. Files, journals, and scrapbooks were passed around, read through, and immediately replaced with some new treasure. Requests were revised on the fly and I think we all got something special that we didn’t even know existed. I marvel at my colleagues who work in archives and can find things in their collections that answers questions you didn’t even know you had.

One of the great joys of this trip was being able to share in everyone’s delight as they came across information that they hadn’t previously known and documents that filled in pieces of the puzzles from centuries past that give us a picture of the people who inhabited the early American circus. Everyone helped each other and pointed out materials that we thought might help the others. Squeals of delight and gasps of astonishment were common and everyone (including several of the people who worked at the archives) would gather around to discuss the item in question. When handwriting was unclear (P. T. Barnum had especially terrible penmanship) the letter was passed around to get more opinions. No one shushed us or gave us dirty look, and for all our discussion I think we got some good research done.

I feel like I was especially fortunate to be there and get a better understanding of how my work can help other researchers where my research fits in the broader field. I will probably never write a book, but I will make some cool maps, data visualizations, and tables that will provide access to facts about the circus that will be important building blocks in other projects. Even though I spend my days advocating that research data is a valid research product it has taken me a while to recognize that my own work counts too. There is a lot of work involved in creating clean datasets, and I tend to dismiss that because this is research that I do “for fun”. Working alone I sometimes worry that I am the only one in the world who will care about things like where the Sells-Floto Circus was playing in 1914 but getting the chance to talk circus for a week with other people who are as excited about their areas as I am about mine reminded me that I am definitely not alone and that what I do has value.

I have never been particularly good at solitary pursuits, so this format of research and exploration suited me very well. If you can find a group of people to storm an archive with I highly recommend it.

Thanks to my circus ladies for a great week: Betsy Golden Kellem; Amelia Osterud; Shannon Scott; and Kat Vecchio.

Enormous thanks to all the people at the Ringling Archives for your generosity and patience: Jennifer Lemmer Posey, Tibbals Curator of Circus; Heidi Connor, Archivist; Peggy Williams, Education Outreach Manager at Feld Entertainment.

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

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