Pierce, Shrake join Circus World
Circus history buffs will have more to appreciate at Circus World Museum after it was announced Friday local history expert Peter Shrake, foreground, has been appointed as the archivist and librarian while circus enthusiast Ralph D. Pierce of Baraboo will work digitizing glass plate negatives taken between 1905-1930. Shrake said by summer the historic circus photos and a wide variety of other circus-related images and documents will become available to the public for free via the Internet. CONTRIBUTED

Fans of the circus will have help delving more deeply into its past after Circus World announced Friday hiring a new archivist and a staff member to work toward making the collection available online.

Former Sauk County Historical Society Director Peter Shrake has been selected to lead the Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center, according to a statement by Steve Freese, Circus World executive director. Baraboo business owner and circus fan Ralph D. Pierce has been hired to digitally scan 1,377 valuable glass plate negatives taken between 1905 and 1930, which will become available over the Internet.

The role of Circus World's archivist has been vacant since 2009, Shrake said. The museum was able to fill the post due to the generosity of a anonymous private donor.

The archivist's top job is to accept images, documents and small artifacts that are given to Circus World, preserve and organize them so they are available to researchers.

Shrake said the library receives many requests for information from across the nation and around the world. They include people wanting facts about specific circuses and sometimes genealogical information.

The library also serves people who come to Baraboo to peruse the collection in person. Over the past few days, for example, the library has been host to a researcher working on a book about a New York circus which is slated for publication by Yale University, he said.

"We get walk-in traffic, sometimes literally folks off the street, or people who make an appointment to come and visit the library," he said.

Pierce said the negatives were produced by Harry Atwell, a Chicago circus fan whose photography gained a measure of respect in the circus industry. Most of them are in the 4-inch-by-5-inch photographic format.

"This man named Atwell, during that period of time he was well known and a lot of his images were used by press agents around the country for promotional activities when circuses came to town," Pierce said.

Work has already begun on the thousand-plus negatives, converting them to computer files that can be stored and also displayed on the Web or printed in books and magazines, Pierce said. The work is expected to be complete in a month or so.

"It's a way to make sure they're preserved so they don't deteriorate any more or there's any damage because they're in a breakable format, glass," he said. "So they're not handled so much."

Once the negatives have been digitized, Pierce said, they will join other Circus World documents online so fans and history buffs anywhere can see what circuses of decades ago looked like.

"It's one of the ways we're getting our collection accessible to people around the country without them having to come right here," he said.

Shrake said the Web version of the Parkinson Library collection is still in an early stage of development. Because it needs more work, he is unwilling to make it available to the public yet.

Shrake promised to notify circus fans when Circus World's collection is ready for viewing online.

While the general public may think of Circus World more for the exhibits and the circus performances of summer, Shrake said the library and archives is just as important to understanding and celebrating America's circus heritage.

"The exhibits and the public programing is what gets people interested in this material," he said. "We're kind of that more quiet side of the operation, but I think we're equally important."

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