Wisconsin could be described as the "Mother of Circuses," the home or winter quarters of more than one hundred traveling tent shows, starting in 1847 - more than 150 years ago, the year before Wisconsin achieved statehood.
The Circus World Museum is owned by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin but operated and managed by the independent Circus World Museum Foundation, Inc. under a lease-management agreement. It is the largest museum dedicated solely to documenting and interpreting the history of the circus in America.
The Parkinson library, established in 1965, is the keystone in fulfilling the mission statement of the Circus World Museum:
The former name of the governing board was the Historic Sites Foundation Board, Inc. The current name of the governing board of the Circus World Museum is Circus World Museum Foundation, Inc.
Thanks to Blake Kellogg for information on the history of the Parkinson library.
In 1954 John M. Kelley preserved the site of the Ringling Bros. Circus at Baraboo, Wisconsin by incorporating the Circus World Museum as a historical and educational facility.
In 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, director of the museum, at the time. It began with a bushel basket full of circus books and a few posters, all from Chappie’s personal collection. The first librarian was Bob Parkinson. Chappie said, "I hired Bob because he knew circus. I knew I could train him as a librarian." And train him, he did. Bob became an outstanding librarian. Ultimately, the library grew into the largest and most extensive collection of circus material in the world.
In 1965 Robert L. Parkinson directed the Circus World Museum’s Library and Research Center until his death in 1991. Parkinson guided the acquisition, cataloging and conservation of the collection, building it into the world’s largest research archive devoted to circus history. Parkinson worked diligently to preserve all of the Ringling Bros. Circus winter quarters buildings in Baraboo. He directed the Museum's horse-drawn circus street parades between 1973 and 1988. He served as national president of the Circus Historical Society in 1966 and 1967. Parkinson is the author of the Directory of American Circuses 1793 - 2000, a monumental compilation of every circus which operated in the United States - recording the names of 2,500 different shows. In recognition of his faithful service, the library at the museum was named the Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center, in 1994.
After Bob Parkinson’s death in 1991, Fred Dahlinger, Jr. was hired as the head librarian - officially Director of Historic Resources and Facilities. He held that position until the entire library staff was dismissed in July 2004. He is widely recognized as one of the preeminent authorities on the circus. In addition to the routine work of acquiring, managing and disseminating information, the Dahlinger and his staff prepared extensive dossiers of information for the planning of parade, cage and baggage wagon restoration. All of the documentation about the museum's wagon collection is housed in the library. Under the direction of Fred Dahlinger, the staff has published several books and over 40 articles. Additionally, Dahlinger has made speeches, offsite, conducted special tours for visiting groups and special guests and served as an expert witness in court trials. Further, Dahlinger has assisted contemporary circus producers in recreating old, but thrilling circus acts. He has also managed the production of two compact disks and a video documentary that is shown in the museum's theater. Moreover, Dahlinger has supervised the restoration of several historic musical instruments, including the museum's band organs. He has also managed the stabilization projects on various Ringlingville buildings. He has designed and installed several grounds exhibits and a traveling exhibit that went from Milwaukee to Massachusetts. He created and presented the museum's National Historic Preservation Week programming in Ringlingville. Most recently, he has assisted author Jerry Apps in the forthcoming publication of his book Ringlingville, which is being co-published by the Wisconsin Historical Society and the University of Wisconsin Press.
Many people love the circus, but few ever had the disease as bad or caught it as young as Bob Parkinson. "I got hooked when I was 11 years old. That was in 1934 in Decatur, Illinois. The date was May 16. It was the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus," he stated in his crisp, precise style in a 1979 interview. During his teenage years, he chased every show which came within striking distance of his home town of Decatur. Along the way friendships were formed with numerous showmen including P. G. Lowery, and Arthur Borella. So were memories, golden ones that he recalled with a relish that clearly indicated he was talking about a time when life was perfect. One of his favorites was the occasion he and his brother Tom, always his co-conspirator on circus day, were approached by a grifter on the Cole Bros, lot. "Do you fellows want a job? Mr. Cole has authorized me to hire a few local boys to help encourage people to see the side show," he stated, meaning that he wanted a couple of shills for the kid show. "You mean, Jess Adkins," Tom piped up. "Forget it," replied the disgusted circus executive, realizing that the Parkinson brothers were not small town rubes, but precocious sophisticates wise in the ways of the show world.
Bob began collecting circus memorabilia the day he bought a program on Ringling-Barnum in 1936. That was on August 20 in Decatur. The show came in from Peoria, and headed for a two-day stand in St. Louis the next day. Bob would tell it that way; he had a memory for that sort of thing. One time in the late 1930s he and Tom spread out all their circusiana. It covered a bed, and they thought they owned the Hertzberg collection.
His fascination with circus history also started in the 1930s. The great historian Bill Woodcock Sr. frequently tutored him and Tom on the wonders of the past, either when Wallace Bros. Circus was in town or through correspondence. Once the families swapped children. While the younger Parkinsons roamed the show lot in a state of ecstasy with the elder Woodcock, his son Buckles, then a toddler, fulfilled a lifelong dream of running away to join a home by spending the day with the senior Parkinsons. John Grace and Charles Bernard, two other pioneer circus historians, were also supportive of the Illinois brothers' interest in show history. Soon the siblings were giving each other quizzes in circus history the way other boys might test one another on baseball statistics. "Name the four Sells brothers" was a typical question on Summit Street in Decatur. He graduated from Millikin University in 1946, and eventually he became an insurance adjuster.
His love affair with circuses and circusiana grew. Usually accompanied by son Greg, he chased shows across the Midwest, often sleeping in his car on the show grounds during multi-day jaunts. He built an excellent general collection, highlighted by the finest privately-held group of field show newspaper ads ever assembled. By contacting companies which microfilmed newspapers, he was able to obtain tens of thousands of old papers with the understanding that he was to destroy them once he had clipped the circus ads. Once, he received six tons of history in one load. His life changed forever in December 1964 when Chappie Fox, then director of the five year old Circus World Museum, called to tell of his plans to create a library. Would he consider heading the archive? Parkinson said later that were it not for family considerations he would have accepted the position immediately. As it was, it took him all of a few hours to get back to Fox in the affirmative.
On March 15, 1965 he started at the museum. At the time the library was located in a small building near the car shops. It contained no furniture, but did have some cabinets and tables built into the walls. Unsorted circus material of all shapes and sizes was piled on the counters and the floor. "I don't know how you're going to start in on this," Fox told him, "but it's yours." Bob reached into a box, pulled out a ticket, and placed it in a drawer. That was the beginning. Most people would have been discouraged by the poor working conditions, the isolation, the lack of equipment and the formidable challenge of cataloguing the disparate material. Not Bob, to him it was a dream come true. He was perfect for the job, and the job was perfect for him.
In 1970 the library moved to the former Effinger Brewery building on Lynn Street, adjacent to the museum grounds. The 15,000 square foot temperature and humidity controlled facility finally gave the collection a worthy home. Given adequate space and proper filing equipment, Parkinson flourished, developing elaborate administrative systems tailored to the unique nature of the holdings. The legendary index, which abstracted the names of circus personnel from programs, route books, trade publications, and other sources, soon became an indispensable research tool. Traveling displays of the library's treasures were created, and duplicate books and copies of films became available on loan. A copying service for the photos and negatives was started. Most importantly, the library began annually processing thousands of requests for information from school children, scholars, genealogists, model builders, ad agencies, television and movie producers, even circuses. Under his leadership the library became the premier institution of its kind in the world, providing myriad services to more researchers than all the other public circus archives combined. Nothing significant has been written on the American circus in the last twenty years which didn't rely in some degree on the library's holdings.
The modest hodgepodge of material that he found upon arrival was soon augmented by the circus collections at the State Historical Society. In a typically Parkinsonesque gesture, he immediately donated his own collection to the museum to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. Not long after he started, the dam broke as wave after wave of cir-cusiana came to Baraboo. Early acquisitions included the Bostock English bills and the fabulous Lee Allen Estes lithographs. They were followed by other specialized groupings such as the Ralph Hastings posters, the Merle Evans music library, the William P. Hall papers, the Gollmar Bros. Circus business records and on and on and on. Significant general collections came from Paul Van Pool, Bill Green, Don Francis and Walter Tyson, among others.
There was disagreement on the Circus World Museum board before he was hired whether the library head should be a librarian who would learn circus history, or a circus historian who would learn library science. Fortunately, the view that circus smarts were more important than library skills prevailed. Parkinson fit that criteria, and that combined with his organizational gifts, his attention to detail, his absolute honesty and his veneration of the material made the Circus World Museum's collection by far the best organized and best cared for anywhere. And because of his watchful eye virtually none of the pilfering, so common to libraries and historical societies of all types, took place. While his work in the library was his passion, he served the Circus World Museum in other capacities. He assisted Fox in organizing the Schlitz circus parades in the 1960s and early 1970s, and headed the last one in 1973. He managed eight marches in Baraboo, Chicago and Milwaukee from 1980 through 1988, controlling 1001 details with amazingly complex administrative systems and a work day that often started at 3:30 am. He was a stickler for authenticity, requiring all bands to play music from 1939 or earlier, for example, because that was the last year a railroad circus paraded. Few who rode the circus train from Baraboo to Milwaukee forgot his stern visage as he barked out procedures and regulations through his omnipresent bullhorn.
From July 1984 until February 1985 he was acting director, taking the reins in a crisis situation when the museum was at low ebb. Through it all, the good times and the bad, he felt he had the greatest job in the world, and indeed, he was one of the fortunate few who made a living doing exactly what he wanted to do. If anybody was with it and for it, it was Bob.
Joining the Circus Historical Society in 1944, he served as president in 1966 and 1967 and occasionally contributed articles to Bandwagon. He recently completed a book documenting the titles of all American circuses. In 1986 he told an interviewer: "Meaning nothing against the insurance industry, if I had been an insurance adjuster all of my life, nothing would survive of my work except my social security number. When I die after developing this library, there will be something permanent whether I'm remembered or not. It will be a benefit to society for generations to come." [Bob died on March 7, 1991.] At its March 25  meeting the board of directors of the Circus World Museum voted unanimously to name the library after this quiet man of extraordinary integrity. Nothing could be more fitting than to see the name Robert L. Parkinson on the side of the building he loved so much. After all, all he did was build the finest circus library in the history of the world. Abstracted from: Pfening, Fred D. Pfening, "Robert Lewis Parkinson 1923 - 1991," Bandwagon, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Mar-Apr), 1991, pp. 17-18.
The Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center is the largest such facility in the world, dedicated to collecting, preserving and disseminating information about the circus. The collection is without equal, in the extent of its material. It is used by scholars, biographers, genealogists, video documentary producers, image suppliers and topic researchers, from around the world, in the study of the history of the circus in America. The library also contains material on related topics including carnivals, wild west aggregations, midways of several varieties and dime museums. The facility is housed in an old brewery building on the property of the Circus World Museum, in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The collection contains materials dating from the first American circus of 1793 to present day.
CHS webmaster J. Griffin, last modified October 2006.