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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *