Monday, November 02, 2009

When you've seen one Edwardian field marshal, you've seen 'em all

Props to Roger Davies!  The Library of Congress staff has emailed to confirm that they will be correcting their records regarding the identity of the man in the recently promoted featured picture at right.  This is not Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener but Frederick Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts.  Roger Davies noted differences in age and facial structure, and in particular the Victoria Cross at lower right which Roberts received, but not Kitchener.  Roger Davies also found two reliable sources for Earl Roberts as the subject of this poster: the Smithsonian Institution and VADS (a joint project of the Imperial War Museum, the British Arts & Humanities Research Council, and Manchester Metropolitan University).

The updated information should be available at the Library of Congress website within a month.

In the meantime we'll need to do a little bit of housekeeping at the wikis because the featured picture candidacies and the relevant filenames all contained Lord Kitchener's name.

This goes to show that reliable sources aren't always perfect.  With good reference works it is possible to improve the data that major institutions can share regarding their collections.  Here's another recent example: a portrait of John Surratt that the Library of Congress is updating per my feedback.

John Surratt was  a Confederate spy who conspired to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and who was suspected of conspiring in Lincoln's assassination.  His mother Mary Surratt was hanged by the United States Federal Government for her part in the Lincoln assassination plot.  John Surratt survived by fleeing to Europe and serving as a Papal zouave; the statute of limitations on most of his activities had expired before he was identified and extradited.

The Library of Congress had misidentified him as the son of "Annie Surratt" and had misidentified his uniform as an Egyptian Army zouave rather than a Papal zouave.  The LoC record also dated this photograph "between 1860 and 1875".  The source Lincoln's Assassins: Their Trial and Execution by James L. Swanson and Daniel R. Weinberg narrows that time frame to 1866-1867 because the photograph was taken by an American photographer and was sold during Surratt's 1867 trial.  Swanson and Weinberg also confirm the other corrections.  The Library of Congress staff recently wrote with thanks for the corrections; their website should be updated within a few weeks.

I've started a restoration on Surratt's portrait but gotten sidetracked.  Interested in completing the project?  Welcoming collaborators; coaching available.

In the bigger picture, this sort of assistance constitutes a significant motivation for cultural institutions to digitize their collections for the public.  For example, a Swedish archive called Regionarkivet recently uploaded several dozen high resolution public domain photographs by major nineteenth century photographers to Wikimedia Commons in the hope that volunteers would locate more information about the material.  When this type of effort succeeds it achieves the best goals of the free culture movement.  I encourage everyone who can provide assistance to join the effort.  Digital editing skill isn't required; all it takes is a little research.

Not that it matters, but I've given Roger an award for his research.  If people like this I could submit it for formal barnstar approval.

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