The Mystery of the Archivist and the Big Book

About a month ago, in one of my Facebook groups dedicated to vintage photos, the above image was posted, along with a query about its genuine provenance–and yes, the poster did actually use that term. The image, has been (re-) posted, blogged, pinned, and otherwise disseminated virtually ad infinitum since 2013, often with the scant claim that it is attributed to an “M. Peterka,” that the photo was taken circa 1940, and that its location was Prague Castle.

               Woman, probably a librarian/archivist, looking at an over-sized illuminated manuscript in an image credited by the Gods of the Internet to “M. Peterka” and allegedly taken at Prague Castle. 

As can be seen here, an archivist appears to have open a Medieval illuminated manuscript–a hymnal, in fact, similar to this Franciscan hymnal from Ferrara, Italy. Medieval manuscripts the size of the ones pictured certainly exist throughout archives and special collections worldwide, and Prague Castle does indeed house an archive, and so it seems logical that the description might be accurate.

Except that it isn’t.

Although the “M. Peterka” credited with the photograph is Miloslav Peterka, a well-known and prolific Czech photographer during the 20th century, the attributed location has been rebuffed by Prague Castle, and the full provenance of the photo has puzzled internet denizens over the years, prompting even the posting of an “unsolved mysteries”-type YouTube video complete with creepy electronic text-to-speech narration:


For her part, Curator of Special Collections at Colorado College Jessy Randall wrote in her Library Shenanigans blog on November 13, 2013:

I used Google’s nifty image search mechanism to discover that — as far as I can tell — this image first appeared on the internet on April 22, 2013, at Lost and Found in Prague. The photographer is M. Peterka and the date is unknown. [Some versions of the image appear with a date of ca. 1940; some say the person in the picture is a man; others say it is a woman.]

It is safe to assume the person is, in fact, a woman, given the time and location and the unlikelihood that a man would wear a skirt, a heart necklace, and wear hair long tied back with a bow, in what was correctly asserted to be Czechoslovakia some time during the mid-20th Century. (I will get to the location in a bit.) More importantly, though, Randall followed up her blog post with this update on November 14:

I’ve just received an email from Martin Halata, head archivist at Prague Castle, who tells me the photograph is not from their archives.] It’s even got lolz versions in Czech [I found these a few days ago but now I can’t find them anymore and it’s driving me crazy].

Lolz indeed.

However, the image’s appearance itself does seem to provide some clues. It appears to be more consistent with a scan from the pages of a book rather than a scanned photographic print. And, as it turns out, Miloslav Peterka had contributed to a number of books, including the aforementioned (via link) Toto město je ve společné péči obyvatelKostelecká škola : Z připr. monografie Městečko Kostelec na Hané v zrcadle svých dějin, an illustrated monograph on the history of a small Czech town; and more promising sounding, the 1958 English-language pictorial, The face of a country : a picture book of Czechoslovakia.

Yes, this last one sounded promising, indeed.

I considered attempting an Interlibrary Loan, but after seeing a used copy selling for fairly cheaply, and being married to a Czech-Lithuanian artist, I decided to buy it outright. Worst-case scenario, assuming it arrived, was a coffee table book full of photos by a renowned 20th century photographer. Best-case scenario, the mysterious photograph is included, and some questions are answered.

It did arrive, in fact, and the images are riveting–scenes both mundane and beautiful, and very often speaking to the experiences of a land with an often grim past. The communist era valorization of labor and the working class is palpable, but so are images of crumbling synagogues, quiet bookstores, and boisterous beer halls.

And, yes, on page 187, I found the image in question, with the caption, “a book which exacts homage.”

Turning to the back of the book, an index of the plates indicated that the page in question, and its verso, were both taken at “The University Library,” and indeed the verso plate reveals not the rather closed library space of the archive at Prague Castle, but a large, open reading room filled with young adults–as would be more consistent with that of a major university. At least as far as The face of a country is concerned, Peterka never claimed that the big books were stored in Prague Castle.

The verso page: Miroslav Peterka’s photograph of a library reading room.

To my understanding, “University Library” would have implied a library affiliated with Charles University, otherwise known as the University of Prague, which does not have one central campus, and has a number of library facilities across the city. This was so even during the communist era, 1948-89. Much more than this I cannot say, however.

All of this boils down to a reticence on my part to take any of the information initially given about the image of the woman with the illuminated manuscript for granted, and once one or two pieces were confirmed, to not necessarily assume that the other details were accurate. A red herring was inserted along with accurate information, and by viewing each detail independently, I was able to make determinations through independent verification while not being led astray.

But what of the confusion over Prague Castle as the location of the stored illuminated manuscripts shown in the photo from page 187? As it turns out the image that has been circulating on the internet is not cropped as tightly as the one in The face of a country. In other words, there’s probably another book out there with a more loosely-cropped image, possibly with a caption or other identification indicating precisely what was passed along to denizens of the internet–that the photo’s provenance was Prague Castle. The mistake might have even been made by Peterka himself, correcting an earlier mistake, or if published after the 1958 book, introducing the error.

Read More Leave comment

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Continuing with discussion of my experiences as a volunteer transcriber for the “Decoding the Civil War” working on the Thomas T. Eckert Papers of the Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens:

This March 6, 1865, telegraph, sent by Union General George Thomas to General Grant via Grant’s Signal officer, Captain Samuel Beckwith, offers a snapshot of  the preparations of Union General George Stoneman for an offensive toward the coast and down into the heart of the crumbling Confederacy.

Stoneman orders

The telegram reads, in part:

We have had a very heavy storm which has retarded the commencement of operation in this [Department] by swelling the streams and destroying [RailRoad] bridges, but I am in hopes [General James H.] Wilson has started by this time. Stoneman will reach Knoxville by Saturday next with his expeditionary force and will start from there [immediately]. I will then adjust the available [Infantry] force to support Stoneman and repair the East [Tennessee] and [Virginia] road as far as Watauga bridge for the present.

This is the prelude to Stoneman’s raids from Tennessee into North Carolina and Virginia, including the destruction of the facilities at the Moratock Foundry in Danbury, here in North Carolina, and of train tracks, railroad depots, and supply points throughout North Carolina and Virginia. Among these targets were the operations of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, employer of the fictional Virgil Caine, who tells the story of Stoneman’s raids and the fall of the Confederate capital Richmond in The Bands “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”:

Virgil Caine is the name
And I served on the Danville train
‘Til Stoneman’s cavalry came
And tore up the tracks again

In the winter of ’65
We were hungry, just barely alive
By May the 10th, Richmond had fell
It’s a time I remember, oh so well

General Stoneman almost lost his opportunity. He was blamed by General Joseph Hooker for their loss at The Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863–a battle that, had it been successful, promised to dislodge General Lee from Fredericksburg. In poor health in addition to the defeat, Stoneman was relieved of command and was relegated to an administrative position. He was able to return to the field the following year, but was captured by Confederates near Macon, Georgia during the Atlanta Campaign–earning the dubious distinction as the highest-ranking Union officer to be  held as a prisoner of war. Through intercession by General Sherman, Stoneman was released after three month, eventually distinguishing himself through incisive raids against the Confederates in the final year of the war.

Following the war George Stoneman, a Democrat, served as governor of California, 1883-87, but returned to a his native New York following the destruction of his California home by fire, and died in Buffalo in 1894 at the age of 72.

Read More Leave comment

A New Wrinkle in an Old Civil War Telegram?

I have recently been working as a volunteer transcribing telegrams and code book entries for the “Decoding the Civil War” project to provide greater access to the Thomas T. Eckert papers of the Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens. As explained here, the library teamed up with other institutions (including the North Carolina State University Library) on a grant to digitize the contents of Captain Eckert’s notebooks and code books, which he preserved following his service as the head of the Union’s military telegraph office of the War Department under Lincoln.

One telegram I transcribed was a May 1864 update from General Sherman concerning what he believed was the most pragmatic approach to defeating the Confederates in their own states–a bit of a “hearts and minds” approach that seems at odds with the image of the commander who would lead the notoriously vicious scorched-earth March to the Sea six months later. The screen capture below is of the telegram in question, opened in my Zooniverse transcription window:

Sherman from Kingston GA

I believe that either I have provided a small but not inconsequential correction of the previous transcription as it appears in the books Meade of Gettysburg and Sherman: Fighting Prophet, or they sourced it elsewhere and the receiver of the telegram in Captain Eckert’s office erred.

Sherman from Kingston GA detail

My transcription, as copied from Eckert’s notebook, with the relevant change from transcription provided by Cleaves and Lewis in italics:

if Gen Grant can sustain the confidence the esprit, the pluck of his army & impress the Virginians with the Knowledge that the Yankees can & will fight them fair & square he will do more good than to capture Richmond or any strategic advantage – this moral result must precede all mere advantage of strategic & this is what Grant is doing – out here the enemy knows we can & will fight like the devil therefore we maneuvre for advantage of ground – W. T. Sherman Maj Genl

Cleaves and Lewis suggest the passage is “he maneuvers,” which may ambiguously imply either Grant or the Confederates do the maneuvering, while the wording of the telegram as it was copied by Captain Eckert’s office is as I have rendered it, with the plural subjective pronoun “we” and the alternative singular spelling of “maneuver”–making clear, at least in this rendering, that General Sherman is speaking of his army.

Read More Leave comment

Thoughts on Authority Control in Library of Congress Subject Headings

Recently I was asked to comment on manners in which Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) authority control must wrestle with contested historical events and come up with an authoritative heading. I considered the events in India, 1857-58, which have historically been labelled by the British as “The Sepoy Mutiny”–an event in which indigenous soldiers (sepoys), irregulars, and civilians in several regions rebelled against British East India Company’s administration of India. The term “sepoy” is misleading insofar as regular enlisted soldiers known as sepoys made up only part of India’s rebellion despite the fact that the rebellion’s armed origins began within Indian Army ranks, while the term “mutiny” implies that a.) soldiers who engaged in the rebellion refused moral, lawful orders, and b.) those civilians or non-regulars somehow had legal and moral obligations, on par with those of sepoys, that would subsequently classify their behavior as mutinous. On the other hand, Indian nationalists have sought to refer to the events as the “First Indian War of Independence” in a manner that ties the events of 1857-58 to those of the Quit India campaigns of the early 20th century despite the far more regional and far less egalitarian nature of the former rebellion. While both of these phrases are grounded in some sense of the events, neither is un-controversial.

Above are the LCSH heading for the events and related sub-headings. Note that “sepoy” is retained but the more controversial “mutiny” term has been avoided in the authorized heading. Both above and below variants include “Sepoy Mutiny,” as well as “Indian Mutiny” and “Sepoy Rebellion,” but oddly, they avoid the less controversial and frequently used term “Indian Rebellion [of 1857-58].” While the LCSH authority standard avoids assenting to the charge that the soldiers were mutinous, the sepoy focus is still narrow in its scope and may even tends to unwittingly serve antiquated British notions of the unfitness and un-trustworthiness of Indian soldiers. In fact, the Term “Indian Rebellion/Revolt of 1857[-58]” is increasingly the norm. Numerous encyclopedias (including Wikipedia, World at War: Understanding Conflict and Society, Cultural sociology of the Middle East, Asia, & Africa, and World Book) use the phrase “Indian Rebellion/Revolt/Uprising of 1857[-58].”


ABC-CLIO. (2001). Indian Rebellion of 1857. In World History: The Modern Era.
Harold, E. R. J. (2011). Indian Rebellion of 1857: British Conquest of India. In World at War: Understanding Conflict and Society.
Indian Rebellion of 1857. (2015, October 18). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Indian_Rebellion_of_1857&oldid=686319916.
Indian Rebellion. (2014). World Book Student. World Book Inc.
Samanta, S. (2012). Indian Rebellion (Mutiny of 1857): 1200 to 1900: South, Central, and West Asia. In A. Stanton, E. Ramsamy, P. Seybolt, & C. Elliott (Eds.),Cultural sociology of the Middle East, Asia, & Africa: An encyclopedia. (pp. IV109-IV110). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452218458.n690.
Read More Leave comment

En Vogue: Coffee and Fashion with Rousseau, Baudrillard, and Bourdieu

I enjoy reading my wife’s Vogue magazines. While it’s probably fair enough to say that an attraction to women and haute couture lay at the root of my interest, there is a dual repulsion that propels that interest as well.

The famous sociologist and cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu, best known for La Distinction, seized upon the Karl Marx’s concept of class, reworking it into a more empirically-quantifiable taxonomy which included social, political, economic, and cultural-intellectual power elements. Indeed, in my view Bourdieu improved upon Marxian dialectical materialism by providing a more quantifiable basis for its cultural elements. (After all, Marx didn’t have at his disposal Bourdieu’s historical hindsight to better critique Marxian theories respective to the developing social circumstances being critiqued—which are especially appealing to readers such as me.)

Bourdieu also seized upon the flaws concept of culture inherent in the analysis of Clifford Geertz , disintegrating it somewhat in the process and borrowing from Marcel Mauss’ notion of “body techniques,” to arrive at what he called habitus. Arguably it is this last innovation which provides embodied/materialist account of religion(s) as socio-cultural phenomena. Habitus, for Bourdieu, was a term closely related to culture, but which he understood as being more, well, habitual. It is an inherently body- and class-oriented theory. More importantly, it is empirically observable, unlike that slippery eel culture, therefore providing Bourdieu with the opportunity to test its soundness.

Every once a while a concept I come across makes me sit up and take notice due in part, perhaps, to the philosopher’s fetish for theoretical elegance that my undergraduate training in philosophy encouraged. Bourdieu’s fit of habitus into the social milieu and its subsequent functional role there is one such theory. Not only is his theory elegant and falsifiable, I would argue that habitus is a specifically memetic process, lending the theory a neo-Darwinian cognitive evolutionary element.

It is with the notion of habitus in mind–and begging my reader’s indulgence–that I next turn to my habit of flipping through my wife’s copies of Vogue. Quite frankly they’ve always fascinated me in a manner not dissimilar to, say, driving past a fatal accident, but with an additional begrudging acknowledgment of a refined aesthetic. But then this also betrays a certain hierarchical understanding set by habitus.

Sitting down with croissant and coffee and at turns pointing out examples from the magazine to my French friends Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean Baudrillard, and Bourdieu, each is impressed, but negatively so. Each has his own take on how “fashion” is social artifice.

Rousseau warns me, “Do not be dazzled by, how you say, ‘neo-liberal’ patina, It is l’ordre hiérarchique. It obscures a darker side. Indeed, it maintains that inequality which it publicly claims to ameliorate with its benefit shows. Look how Marie Antoinette is on the cover. Need I say more?”

Yes, but that’s an actress, I tell him, pointing to the image of Kirsten Dunst.

“But they are no doubt in love with l’Ancien Régime,” he says, adding, “So long as government and law provide for the security and well-being of men in their common life, the arts, literature, and the sciences, less despotic though perhaps more powerful, fling garlands of flowers over the chains which weigh them down. They stifle in men’s breasts that sense of original liberty, for which they seem to have been born; cause them to love their own slavery, and so make of them what is called a civilized people.”¹

Baudrillard nods his assent, but worries that the radical Jacobin is at heart a Spartan and a fledgling Luddite.
“Look,” he tells me, “This is creation of desire, vraîment? You would do well to understand that here it serves Western capitalism in a certain way, but remember that seduction—the use of desire—is very much a part of being human.”

“Isn’t it a commodity here?”

“Perhaps, yes, a commodity that serves a certain political power, for better or for worse. Seduction takes from discourse its sense and turns it from its truth. It is, therefore, contrary to the psychoanalytic distinction between manifest and latent discourse. For the latent discourse turns the manifest discourse not from its truth, but towards its truth….”²

“So it’s bad, then, isn’t it?”

“No, not necessarily. Seduction, it can be very subversive, in a positive way.”


Baudrillard sips his coffee thoughtfully and answers, “In seduction… it is the manifest discourse–discourse at its most superficial–that turns back on the deeper order (whether conscious or unconscious) in order to invalidate it, substituting the charm and illusion of appearances. These appearances are not in the least frivolous, but occasions for a game and its stakes, and a passion for deviation—the seduction of the signs themselves being more important than the emergence of any truth—which interpretation neglects and destroys in its search for hidden meanings. This is why interpretation is what, par excellence, is opposed to seduction, and why it is the least seductive of discourses.”³

I turn to Bourdieu who nods his assent, but he warns me, “You will have rightly noted that there are power issues here, and that both the means and the ends are the manipulation of material economy. Do not come away from our conversation thinking that these are always intended conspiracies.”

I shake my head. “So things are being manipulated, but not necessarily intentionally? I don’t get it.”

“Reflect on the habitus,” Bourdieu tells me. “You will note that my friend Rousseau here is right in that these things can both obscure—and I might add, reveal—power. But that power—capital, actually—is a utilization of precognitive concepts. People often don’t know they are relying upon habitus for their understanding of the world around them.”

“Sounds logical, in an odd sort of way.”

“My friend Baudrillard here has used the concept of seduction. Perhaps it reveals something about the irrational and precognitive aspects of habitus. But it is with this that I am most concerned: Understanding seduction might help you to understand social hierarchies somewhat, but understanding habitus provides you with the bigger picture. It is the key to understanding the limits of doxa, the key that unlocks the chains with which my friend Rousseau, even my friend Marx, is concerned. But, the idea that the flowers keep you in chains misses the point. See, habitus exists at the intersection of structure and practice. But when structure breaks down, doxa may be disputed and from it the creation of orthodox and heterodox worldviews within habitus. You may break the chains of either doxa integrity or orthodoxy and grasp the flowers, if only temporarily.”

Doxa as in ‘the undisputed’?”

“Yes, the ostensibly undisputable definition of the real. You see, the dominated classes have an interest in pushing back the limits of doxa and exposing the arbitrariness of the taken-for-granted; the dominant classes have an interest in defending the integrity of doxa, or short of this, of establishing in its place the necessary imperfect substitute, orthodoxy.”⁴

“But this is not always recognized even by those who benefit from doxa or orthodoxy,” I add.

“Quite right.”

“So what about Vogue, then? This appears to me to be so much doxa.”

“This is not exactly a yes or no question, but there are elements of doxa and orthodoxy, certainly, and what is more important is that you recognize a certain habitus embraced by the magazine. I’d say it’s rubbish, but really, the sociologist in me revels in the opportunities inherent in its presentation. But you clearly see the symbolic value which represents a very materially-oriented habitus.”

“I see,” I say biting into a croissant.

1. Rousseau, Jean Jacques. “A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences” (1750), translated by G. D. H. Cole.
2. Jean Baudrillard, Seduction (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979), 53.
3. Ibid., 53-4.
4. Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 169.
Read More Leave comment