- notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, Oxford. Opinions expressed are strictly the author's own!


searching for biographical information (1)

Top tip for archival research: if you are looking for biographical information about someone from the UK, check the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) first. Even if you think the subject of your research might not be ‘eminent’ enough – you’d be surprised. The ODNB also has a fantastic series of historic themes, bringing related (and sometimes surprising) networks of biographies together. The online version is available by subscription, but even if you are not affiliated to a subscribing institution, you may be able to log in via your public library card number – check with your local library. Try starting with their local and family history page: http://global.oup.com/oxforddnb/info/freeodnb/local/


Austin 3

My last Austin post is about an important moment in the archival history of Texas, and illustrates the legal, political and symbolic significance of administrative archives.


You will find this statue of Angelina Eberly (2004, by Patrick Oliphant) on Congress Street, within view of the Capitol building. The caption below it reads:

‘ In 1842, Texas was an independent nation, and Austin was its capital. Sam Houston, the President of the Republic of Texas, regarded Austin as a vulnerable and unsuitable location for the seat of government and waged an unsuccessful campaign to have it moved to his namesake city. As a last resort, the President dispatched a delegation of Texas Rangers to Austin to steal the government archives. An innkeeper named Angelina Eberly heard the Rangers loading their wagons in the middle of the night. She rushed to the corner of what is now Sixth and Congress and fired off the town cannon, blowing a hole in the Land Office building and rousing the populace. The citizens chased down Houston’s men, recovered the archives, and gave them to Mrs. Eberly for safekeeping. This statue honors a bold woman whose vigilance and short temper preserved Austin as the capital of Texas.’

This text and more information about the statue and its creator can be found here.


Austin 2

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One of the things Micah showed us was this enormous C15 Italian liturgical manuscript, which still has a pretty early binding if not the original – parchment spine covering (maybe a reback?) over blind tooled leather, lots of huge heavy metal furniture, evidence of former fastenings, and most interesting to me, pieces of the cover missing at a strategic place to show the board structure….


… not a single solid piece of oak at all, but a frame filled with and/or supported by slats in a vertical (head-tail) direction. And nailed together, or maybe those nails are later repairs? Or is the slatted component an addition to the head edge of an otherwise solid board? Determining those things would have taken quite a lot more looking at – always more questions.


I wish these photos were not so blurry, but you get the idea.

And because the end leaves/ pastedowns are absent, we could also see the MASSIVE supports on the inside of the front board - six, double, alum tawed. You can see the scale of the text block from the first folio here – this was a choirbook on a grand scale!

Austin 1


Leaving Waco 100 miles behind on the I-35, we drove south to Austin to meet Micah Erwin, a cataloguing archivist at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center. In addition to his regular duties, Micah curates the Medieval Fragments Project, and I wanted to hear more about how he has used digitisation and social media to add all kinds of value to what might otherwise have remained just an odd little collection of bits and pieces of binders’ waste.

Little did we know that we would get to look at a Gutenberg Bible and then have a grand tour and meet several of Micah’s colleagues and the Center’s Director! but we might have known – Texas hospitality again :)


L-R Fiona, Richard Oram, Liz Gushee, Micah Erwin

Librarians and archivists have so much fun on busmen’s holidays – here Richard Oram (2nd from left) is showing us some of his favourite highlights from the manuscript collections, such as Byron’s will and a huge series of caricatures by Robert Browning’s father. Particularly notable – or notorious – among the other amazing items he produced for us was the Victorian ‘Blood Book’ – Richard’s video about this weird and wonderful item is here.

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In addition to some of the HRC’s Browning letters, we also saw some of the Bronte siblings’ tiny childhood manuscript notebooks, full of poetry, fiction and the documentation of their imaginary countries – here, the holograph of Charlotte’s The Green Dwarf . Below, Fiona demonstrates its size.




 L-R Anna, Fiona, Olivia Primanis (Senior Conservator)

And we visited the conservation department, where Olivia showed us a clever drop-spine boxing solution and a book of watercolour travel sketches showing Roman-arena style tricks of the early 19th century bullring, including a man popping out of a trap-door in the floor and waving his plumed hat to distract the bull!

Thank you all for a brilliant day at the Harry Ransom Center! We started a lot of conversations that are far from finished…

 A few HRC-related places to keep an eye on:

Harry Ransom Center blog, YouTube channel and Flickr page

Micah Erwin’s blog

Waco 1


Fiona, Balliol’s Assistant Librarian, and I have just had a great week of all things special collections in… Texas! (I’m back-dating posts.)

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Detail of the bronze front doors of the Armstrong Browning Library

We were invited to Baylor University in Waco to make a presentation on Balliol’s (established, but mostly future) part in the Browning Letters Project at the Browning Day celebrations hosted by the Armstrong Browning Library. The text and slides of our part of the presentation are online here. I’ll be writing more on the blog soon about Balliol’s Browning letters and the progress of the project.


Foyer ceiling, Armstrong Browning Library

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Bells & pomegranates detail, foyer floor, Armstrong Browning Library


Setting up for Browning Day presentations in the Hankamer Treasure Room

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Reflection of stained glass on the recent exhibition, ‘…from America: the Brownings’ American Correspondents’, by Melinda Creech, the ABL’s current graduate assistant.

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Detail of the ‘O to be in England’ window in the Scholars’ Room.

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The Scholars’ Room – a very nice study space, almost more gentleman’s club than library, with beautifully polished tables, literary busts atop the shelves and more Browning-themed stained glass.


The Salon – it is meant to give an impression of what the Brownings’ salon in Casa Guidi would have looked like, and contains some items of furniture owned by the Brownings and the Barrett family as well as a series of stained glass windows illustrating some of the Sonnets from the Portuguese.

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My photos are awful and do no justice at all to this stunning and beautifully-planned building – the Library’s online tour is much better!

Some ABL-related places to watch:

the ABL  blog

the 19th Century Research Seminar

conservation survey notes 11




Just a nice picture today – one of the great pleasures (and professional interests, obviously) of this survey is just looking through all the books, comparing hands and artistic styles, picking up patterns, similarities and differences. Balliol’s collection, on average, is not particularly generously or well decorated, but there have been some lovely surprises, like this. MS 232A has only one initial this elaborate. Most elaborately decorated first folios in Balliol’s mss have either been cut out entirely or lost their initial, head and bas-de-page. Some of this may have been out and out vandalism, someone stealing the initials for his own purposes, but particularly the top and bottom margins may have been cut out to remove marks of former ownership. Which raises questions about why anyone would bother to do that, but we are unlikely to come across an answer to that one.


conservation survey notes 10

Balliol MS 86 provides three examples of two types of book marker:


1) A strip of parchment cut from the edge of the page, folded and slotted through a small cut to form a little tab that sticks out beyond the edge of the page – very similar to the standard pendent seal attachment method on title deeds and other administrative documents.


 above, the verso of 1


2) two examples of large stitches of coloured thread used as page markers. The question is, were the stitches themselves the marker, or did they once hold something else – a bit of cloth, parchment or paper – to the page? We may find another example that answers this question in another manuscript later. This is becoming quite a pattern – one manuscript will raise a question without providing quite enough evidence to decide on an answer, and then either another particular observation or an average of several similar situations will make the first example clearer when we take another, more experienced, look. Exciting – we are all learning a lot!



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