The Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center

The Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center, Baraboo, Wisconsin.
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Cole Brothers Circus Herald. Courtesy of the Robert L. Parkinson Library, Circus World Museum.

The Circus World Museum began with John M. Kelley, the personal attorney for the Ringling brothers, who had retired to Baraboo, Wisconsin. Along with members of the Gollmar Family, cousins to the Ringling family, the Circus World Museum was created as a historical and educational facility in 1954. Following Circus World’s opening on July 1, 1959, the site was deeded to the Wisconsin Historical Society. The Library at the Circus World Museum began in 1965 by Charles Philip “Chappie” Fox, who was the museum director during that time. The first circus books and posters that were housed in the library were from Chappie’s personal collection. Eventually, Robert L. Parkinson was hired to be the library’s director. Parkinson directed the Circus World Museum’s Library and Research Center for 26 years until 1991. Although he was not a trained librarian, Parkinson guided the acquisition, cataloging and conservation of the collection through his vast circus knowledge, building it into the world’s largest research archive devoted to circus history. Many different formats of materials are collected, including paper, photographs, sound recordings, books, videos, magazines, and compact discs.

The Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center defines itself as:

The world’s foremost research facility for circus history. The holdings document the history of the American circus from its inception in 1793 to the present day. It contains a huge collection containing rare photographs, posters, manuscripts and artifacts. With information on some 2,800 American circuses, and a reference file of over 300,000 names of circus performers and employees, it is a prime source of information for enthusiasts and scholars of the circus from all over the world.

Not only does the large reference files of circus performers serve as a unique genealogical resource, the Parkinson Library and Research Center houses an exceptional collection of advertising materials, including circus heralds (pictured above). A herald was a form of advertisement used by circuses in conjunction with posters and curriers, and would be distributed in advance of the arrival of a circus. Usually lacking any color and printed on newsprint, heralds often had the same appearance as a hand bill and could range from a one page one-sided item to a multi-paged publication similar in appearance to a newspaper. Their historical value not only comes in being able to follow where a specific circus traveled during a specific time, but is also helpful for genealogists as a unique item to identify ancestors that were performers featured on the heralds from a specific circus.

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Group photo of all the side-show performers from the Barnum and Bailey Circus, 1903. Courtesy of the Robert L. Parkinson Library.

Genealogists and circus enthusiasts are the most common users of the library. The Parkinson Library is currently managed by archivist Pete Shrake. Materials can be accessed either by setting up an in person visit via an appointment or by accessing the online library catalog where digitized materials can be viewed.

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