- 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!


EPBs survey

It’s that time of year – here’s one for the series ‘What can college librarians possibly find to do all summer while the students are away?’ Well, the Library staff are currently carrying out a Grand Shelf Check of all the early printed books – it’s especially important that we know, and record, where everything is because some of the EPBS were moved to St Cross in 2011-13 and some are still in Broad Street. And as always happens with thorough checks like this, all sorts of interesting things are turning up! Some of them include significant proportions of manuscript material – more about this as they emerge. From yesterday:

Balliol Library 470 a 19 is a very small book – 10 x 6 cm or so. The cover is parchment

and it’s stitched through the cover on the spine to form a simple cover without boards.

There is a faint reference number of some kind on the front – it may pertain to an old library shelfmark (Balliol or a previous owner) or it may even be an archival reference, because…


the cover is in fact a cut-down and reused administrative document. This is not unusual – palimpsests (erased texts that have been written over) get the press these days, but old parchments were often reused in humbler ways, as pastedowns, fly/guard/endleaves, linings, fastenings, page markers and indeed as in this case, covers. Here we can see the title page and the inside of the front cover – the document is upside down.

Oh – the contents of the printed book? Prattica cioe inventione di Conteggiare, published in Brescia by Ludovico Britannico.

Now we know we’re in Italy, back to the cover!


Part of the document is conveniently shaped to form a fore-edge flap for the book. It’s now very stiff, and has been folded inside the back cover for so long it doesn’t function as a flap anymore.



Here is what we can see of the document – upper left of what remains of the text, now the upside down lower part of the inside back cover of the book.


Lower left of the document: the notarial sign and colophon – see Medieval Writing’s useful explanation.


Back to the front of the book for the right hand side of the document…


the upper right


and the lower right.

I don’t have time to familiarise myself with Italian legal documentary formulae, and I don’t know what kind of transaction this document records, or quite how much of it is missing (clearly we have the bottom but not quite the beginning), but I hope somebody who’s practising Italian palaeography and diplomatic may find it interesting! Do drop us a line if so…

conservation survey completed

We have just finished the last session of the manuscripts condition survey! 500 items spanning a millennium (10th-20th centuries), mostly codex format (i.e. books), mostly western European, mostly medieval, individually surveyed between mid-January and the end of July.

Only 40 are in poor physical condition, and only 6 are currently unusable – that is, any handling would cause further damage. The rest are in fair to good condition, and a number of those in poor condition require fairly straightforward repairs that will make them safe to handle (with care, of course).

It’s been a fascinating once-in-a-career journey through every single manuscript in the collection, and there are still many blog posts to come about our explorations and discoveries. The survey will inform not only future schedules for MS repairs starting this year, but also loans, exhibitions (it will itself be the subject of an exhibition), photography, outreach & teaching, further cataloguing/description…

Many MANY thanks to our wonderful team of professional conservators at the Oxford Conservation Consortium just down the road!

conservation survey notes 13

Copy of MS385-01

Balliol MS 385 is written in Pali on lacquered and gilt palm leaves enclosed and strung between painted wooden boards.

Copy of MS385-02

Detail of one of the boards

Copy of MS385-03


The inner side of one board and the outside leaf

Copy of MS385-05

Detail of an outer leaf

Copy of MS385-06


leaves from the middle of the manuscript, with text and decoration

Copy of MS385-08




detail of decorated leaf




Balliol has few Oriental manuscripts – the term under which all the non-western mss in languages and scripts from Pali to Persian, Hebrew to Hindi, have been lumped together. Most of them were given individually to the College as antiquarian curiosities, and they have not, on the whole, been evaluated, described or studied much at all in comparison with the collection of western manuscripts. But there are discoveries still to be made!

Copy of MS385-15

A description of MSS 385 and 386 by Prof FW Thomas, cited by Mynors as ‘kept with the MSS’, is lost, so as far as we know Balliol does not have information about the date or origins of this MS. There is no obvious documentation of how it came to Balliol, but there is a lot of acquisition information, at least for the 20th century, in the Annual Record, so we will at least survey that to see what we can discover.


In the meantime, our descriptions remain inadequate, but thanks to the efforts of archives, libraries and museums to put images from their own collections online, it is possible to put these ‘Balliol orphans’ in some kind of context with other manuscripts of their kind(s). I have found some (to the untrained eye at least) similar manuscripts – and therefore several useful descriptors and explanations of particular features –  at:

Very little of the British Library’s large Southeast Asia collections is online, either images or descriptions, but you can find some images here: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Default.aspx

For background knowledge rather than images:


conservation survey notes 12

Balliol MS 452 is a copy of the Koran, given to the College in 1983. The donor did not have information about its date or provenance. We will be asking experts in the field(s) to examine Balliol’s small collection of Oriental manuscripts and describe them in detail, most for the first time. Watch this space!

Balliol Collge MS 452

Physically, the book is currently in unusable condition. The spine and one cover are detached, and the unsupported sewing is weak with some breaks, making the textblock unstable. Any use in this state causes damage – we disturbed it as little and as briefly as possible for this examination, while documenting as much as we safely could.

Balliol Collge MS 452

The first folio features areas of illumination using gold and pigments above and below the text and on two, perhaps formerly three, sides of the border. This page shows some old repairs, of which there are many throughout the volume.

Balliol Collge MS 452

Balliol Collge MS 452

Balliol Collge MS 452

above, showing f1 with the blue linen spine lining exposed

MS 452 cover

The two sections of the fore edge flap have become detached, and the hinges between the three parts of the cover are mostly lost.


The red leather  cover, now darkened, was painted with silver and gold or pigments resembling metals. The various layers, which would not have been visible when the book was new, are now showing more clearly as the materials age and wear.


The small square gold-coloured areas are made separately and stuck on – some are beginning to lift as the adhesives lose their strength.


A view of one of the endbands, showing the typical zigzag pattern, now broken about halfway.


This volume was housed until recently inside what was once a beautiful dark green silk velvet bag, evidently specially made for it. A stub remains from the bag’s lost tie, in a rather natty check or plaid. The textile itself needs conservation, and removing the book from the enclosure or replacing it is only causing further damage to both items, so they will be kept  separately – but still together. Ideally, one both items have been treated they could be housed in separate areas of the same box.


Thanks to the survey, we hope that both the history and the future of this book will soon become clearer!

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/


report March – May 2014

A) Reader & visitor numbers by month:

March: 9 researchers over 8 days consulting Nicolson diaries, medieval mss (6), college archives re Butterfield, Curgenven Papers, D Urquhart Papers, FF Urquhart papers: 25 non-research visitors.

April: 2 researchers over 2 days consulting Morier Papers, Mallet Papers: 10 non-research visitors.

May: 4 researchers over 5 days consulting Medieval mss (2), Nicolson diaries, early modern mss, Mallet papers: 20 non-research visitors.

June: 12 researchers made 18 visits over 12 days, consulting D Urquhart papers, College Archives, Nicolson diaries (2), TH Green papers, medieval mss (3), Mrs Humphry Ward papers (Arnold collection), Caird papers, Clough papers, Mallet papers: 50 non-research visitors.

B) Remote enquiries:

March: 49

April: 49

May: 51

Total: 151

C) St Cross activities not elsewhere in the agenda
• Outreach activities:  Schools outreach maps & monsters, bookbinding sessions

• Digitisation:

  • 7500 images posted on Flickr in response to research enquiries Mar-May 2014.
  • Passed 700K views on 11 April, 800K on 3 June.
  • WW1 War memorial books are now the most-viewed images, closely followed by medieval title deeds and the 1910s era of the FF Urquhart albums. Real number of unviewed images (now < 10%) is decreasing despite regular additions of new images.
  • Feedback:
     e.g., from a Professor at ASU (medical historian): ‘Wow, this is brilliant.  And such perfect timing:  I’m meeting at the end of the week with my collaborators on the 12th-century MSS project and this will be a crowning glory to our discussions! Thanks a million.’; from a Fellow of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (English): ‘I think you are doing a wonderful job by making all those manuscripts available for researchers, with such a good quality. That is really a priceless contribution to research. Thank you so much;’ from a medievalist, English & digital humanities asst prof at Vassar: ‘we love you and your camera Balliol Archivist. Your flickr is amazing.’

• Browning letters project – in early May Anna and Fiona took part in Browning Day at the Browning Armstrong Library, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, to launch Balliol’s participation as the first international partner in Baylor’s Browning Letters Project. In the evening the Baylor, Wellesley and Balliol representatives re-presented to the Fano Club. We encountered magnificent collections, impressive facilities, polished professionalism and genuine Southern hospitality in our meetings with curators at the ABL and the Harry Ransom

• Social media Mar-May:

  • Facebook: 27 posts, mostly expanded & illustrated versions of tweets. 324 total likes
  • Twitter: advertising talks/events, new online resources, images; people loved the cat paw prints in ms 192, ca 150 RTs and a Tumblr post from Erik Kwakkel (Leiden; 2014 Lowe Lecturer in Palaeography); 103 new, total 781 followers.
    • Blog: 17 new posts (mostly about the mss survey), avg 575 views/month.


  • Medieval mss condition survey – 325/500 complete (65%). Of those, 30 are in poor condition and only 3 currently unusable; the rest (90%) are fair or good. 32 sessions of 2-3 hours Jan-May; we expect to complete before the new academic year begins.
  • MS 329 visited the conservation studio as a sample for a course in UV & multispectral photography, resulting in good quality UV images for a researcher – these revealed a page of text that had been erased, at least sufficiently to check it against other known sources of the text.


March: Display of special collections in St Cross for the JCR – World Book Day
April: Visit by Mark Storey & Friends of the London Library
Events scheduled for the summer:
• June: History of the Book workshop for Watford Girls GS; staff training in emergency response and disaster recovery
• July: opening for Balliol Family Day
• August:  manuscripts workshop with Prof Joshua King (Baylor in Oxford); early print bindings workshop with Mirjam Foot (Julia Smith & Traherne editors)
• September: Oxford Open Doors Days & NHCT Ride & Stride; ‘Balliol Boys’ Club & WW1’ exhibition, open for University Alumni Weekend and Balliol Society Weekend (etc)

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.



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