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Library Research Recovers John Ringling's Collection

Volunteers at The Ringling selflessly donate their talents and thousands of hours each year, and some of these dedicated individuals commit their time to remarkable projects in the Art Library. 

Bill Reynolds spent his career working as a mechanical engineer and consultant, before retirement brought him to Sarasota and The Ringling. “A lifelong love of books brought me to the library,” Reynolds said in a recent interview, “Where I found there were excellent volunteer opportunities.”

Ringling Art Library Volunteer Bill Reynolds, who worked on John Ringling's Private Collection

One of the projects on which Reynolds has spent significant time focuses on the personal library of John Ringling. The Art Library now houses and conserves about 630 of the volumes that John Ringling owned when he and Mable lived in Ca d’Zan.

“I became interested in John Ringling’s personal library while inventorying the Rare Book collection, where over 900 of his auction catalogs are stored.” Reynolds developed a spreadsheet to match the book inventory made in 1937 after John Ringling’s death with the books in his collection today, and he found that the library has about 96% of Ringling’s original art book titles. "During that process,” Reynolds says, “We found several more of his art books in the General Collection and in the Rare Book Collection. However, mysteries remain!”

Reynolds says that the collection today contains a number of books that clearly belonged to Ringling (for instance, they bear inscriptions to him) but were not in the 1937 inventory.

Recently, a set of eighteen leather-bound, limited edition volumes published in 1901, was discovered in Ca d’Zan. Reynolds was able to determine that these books were once owned by John Ringling after checking the book inventory list and discovering that the edition number in the books matched the one in the inventory. These books have now returned to the John Ringling Collection in the Art Library to be added to the rare book collection.

A Set of Books from John Ringling's Private Collection

This project provides invaluable insight for the Art Library, as Ringling’s collection provides so much insight into who he was as a collector. Reynold’s work includes other collections as well: he has worked on projects digitizing the files on exhibitions held at The Ringling since the late 1940s. He has also inventoried most of the rare book collections, including those on the Merci Train and the artist, William Pogany. More recently, he has inventoried the Circus Collection, reference books, and Legacy Collection. “I am currently developing a list of books and their attributes in the George Ellis Collection.”

The Art Library is open from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. to the public and John Ringling’s personal library is available to view by appointment (please call 941-359-5700, ex. 2701 or 2703). 

The work of volunteers helps to improve our library, which is one of the largest and most comprehensive art libraries in the Southeastern US. To find out about volunteer opportunities with the Library, please contact Elisa Hansen, Head of Library Services (elisa.hansen@ringling.org). 

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