Thursday, April 5, 2012

Cinderella Story

Letestan? This place name stopped me in my tracks as I was consulting our poster database. Although I have kept up with all the new countries of Central Asia, such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Letestan didn't ring any bells. I searched few standard sources, including the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names, GeoNames, and the authority files of the Library of Congress, but found no mention of Letestan. I then searched the Internet, using Google and a few other search engines. Google produced about 1,770 results, very few for Google, only one of which was an exact match of "Letestan" and which turned out to be the Facebook page of someone with that surname. After my search seemed to have pushed the Internet beyond its limits, I tried a pre-Internet source, Webster's New Geographical Dictionary, which was standard issue at every desk at the National Geographic Society when I interned there long ago. No luck.

Some philatelists specialize in Cinderellas: postage-stamp-like labels produced by unrecognized countries. Some Cinderellas are playful fantasies; others represent serious political statements and secessionist movements. Was Letestan some sort of Cinderella country?

I then examined the poster, which was of World War I vintage, more closely. It bore a simple text message urging British men to join the Leicestershire Regiment: "If you want Honour and Glory, join the Regiment that has made History, the Regiment that has Gained the Honours." In the lower right corner was a small imprint: Willsons, Printers, Letestan. But why would Willsons, which was undoubtedly advertising its work, list a false location? Then I noticed the seal at the top of the poster, a tiger wrapped in the banner "Hindoostan/Leicestershire," which was the Royal Tiger Badge awarded the regiment for its service in India in the early 1800s. The name Hindustan has at times been applied to India and does share a "stan" with Letestan.

I then searched a rack of geographic and historical British databases available at Stanford's library, but none yielded any results for Letestan.

There's no neat ending to this puzzle, but it got me thinking about how libraries and archives view place names and the controlled vocabularies that govern their use. How do these rules accommodate fictional places? How are such places distinguished from real places? I'm left with more questions than answers. But the next time someone types "Letestan" in Google's search box, they will find a link to this blog--maybe in the coveted number one spot.

Leicestershire Regiment recruiting poster, UK 425, Poster collection, Hoover Institution Archives