- 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!

Author Archive

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.


Austin 2

Copy of DSCN9350

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.

Copy of DSCN9347

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.)

Copy of DSCN9312

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

Copy of DSCN9317

Bells & pomegranates detail, foyer floor, Armstrong Browning Library


Setting up for Browning Day presentations in the Hankamer Treasure Room

Copy of DSCN9294

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

Copy of DSCN9303

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

Copy of DSCN9305

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.

Copy of DSCN9336

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!


conservation survey notes 9


Today’s example, from Balliol MS 219, is textual rather than codicological: a rebus or visual pun. On f238v the gift of the book to Balliol Library is recorded by Master (i.e., MA, or perhaps Master as in head of house, as he also held that office) Richard Stapylton, formerly a Fellow of Balliol. Mynors notes, ‘The presence on 231v,… of R and two tuns (barrels) connected by staples (3-sided or U-shaped fastening), apparently drawn by the rubricator of the volume, suggests that it was written for the donor, and comparison with the Digby MS [Oxford Bodleian Library Digby 29] shows that at any rate [a] great part of it is in his hand.’ More details about Stapilton [sic] in Emden’s Biographical Register vol 3 p.1766.


Ho ho ho.

conservation survey notes 8



Today we have some rather unedifying graffiti in Balliol MS 218 – what looks like a child’s drawing in pencil (or other sort of lead point) of one man hitting another on the nose with ?a stick. It may even be by a child – the children of an 18th century Master have left numerous traces in the college library collections, often carefully signed with their names…

??????????Other things of note on this page – well, quite a few different stains. Several layers of commentary and annotations – main text in the middle column, comments to right and left, further notes in the outside margin – I like the triangular ones, not sure whether they have a particular significance. And lots of interlinear interpolations. Prick marks, one of the early steps in laying out the page for writing, are visible down both outside and inside edges of the pages. Just above halfway down the right-hand page (84r) is another example of a production cut, where a stitched mend has been cut out before writing.



conservation survey notes 7

??????????It’s usual to come across occasional production repairs of parchment in medieval books, but today’s example (Balliol MS 210) we immediately named Frankenbook! There are numerous pages with multiple stitched tears each, and in most cases the stitches have been left in, leaving long, bumpy dents in the facing page.


The parchment-making process involves a lot of scraping and stretching, so tears in the skin are inevitable during production – they are usually stitched up while the skin is still wet. I’m reliably informed that this is very difficult, and the sewing as a result is often rather crude. The stitched area tends to be lumpy when dried, and the stitches themselves are often removed at a later stage to make the page lie flatter against its neighbours. This can leave either a slit edged on two sides by stitch holes, or a narrow rectangular hole (example in the photo above). It is often clear that these cuts/repairs have been made before the book was written because the text is written around the hole – example below, leaving space around the ‘scarred’ area. In this case the stitches have been scraped rather than removed, but the surface is still not flat enough for writing on.


conservation survey notes 6


Today’s image is a cheerful early 13th century author portrait of St Bernard of Clairvaux, to begin Balliol MS 150, a volume of his sermons – and we begin with a sermon ‘in adventu Dominica prima’, for the first Sunday in Advent, the church’s new year. The point to today is a photographic one, illustrating a very basic technique that makes a big difference to large photos of small things: if the camera is placed very close to the subject, among other issues there will be quite a lot of distortion (‘barrelling’) around the edges of the photo. A way round this is to zoom in, even a little bit – the photo below has much straighter edges, truer to the original. The lines in the manuscript aren’t straight, and any photo will also show the cockling on the page, but the zoomed photo is certainly better.


From a conservation point of view, this is a good illustration of effects of oxygen and/or humidity on pigments – the sequence of long triangles down the sides of the blue capital H used to be all the same shade of red, but parts have oxidised, turning the surface purple.

conservation survey notes 5


from Balliol MS 250 – the scribal hand (or another, but not a formal decorator) has added huge numbers of these informal but charming penwork illustrations, particularly to letters that extend up or down into the margins. Perhaps the text, Aristotle’s De historiis animalium, has some influence on the choice of decoration, but if so it’s not specific, as the bird drawings occur throughout but are the subject of only Book 6. In the illustration above, three birds are sitting in a tree or bush, probably intent on eating the berries represented in the middle part of the plant. Another creature is also trying to get in on the act – perhaps a rabbit, pig or dog. Birds eating grapes often turn up in much fancier illuminated borders. I’d like to see some proper research on the ornaments in this manuscript, but it looks to me as though the illustrator is drawing from figures and little compositions commonly found in much higher-status ornamentation, not only the birds eating grapes but rabbits munching on leaves, dogs chasing rabbits, grotesques and faces growing out of foliage – quasi-Green Men.


Here, several clearly different species of bird going after berries. More from this charming manuscript soon, I hope!

conservation survey notes 4

Today we have naming of parts – binding parts.


Balliol MS 248C - the front board is detached, held on only by the cloth lining the inner joint.


And here’s why – although the double alum tawed supports are clearly present in the spine…


… when the manuscript was rebound, the supports were cut, and not attached to the upper board at all. The leather covering the outer joint, which was doing  a lot of the work of holding the board in place, has, unsurprisingly, split under the strain.


Close up showing the stumps of the supports on the spine side (lower part of photo) and the channels cut into the board for the supports to continue into  – but the channels are empty! The linen inner joint, now damaged itself, is the only attachment between spine and board.

conservation survey notes 3

Today’s feature comes from MS 151 (a 13th century copy of letters by St Bernard of Clairvaux), f 161r – rubricator’s notes. At the very edge of the bottom of most pages are tiny notes. These will have been made by the scribe as he went along, to indicate the text for headings and anything else that needed to be added in red, for which he left spaces in the (black) main text.

Then he or another scribe went back through the text, adding paragraph marks, initials, headings and other decoration, usually (as here) in alternating red and blue inks. The rubrication notes were placed right on the edge of the parchment because they were always intended to be trimmed off, and they usually are – occasionally one that wasn’t quite close enough to the edge will remain, or at least the tops of the letters will, after trimming, but it’s rare to have them present, as in this one, throughout the manuscript.


Further decoration such as marginal foliage or figures, historiated initials etc, using more pigments and sometimes gold, (not present in this ms) was yet another layer of time and therefore expense in the book production process. Scribe, rubricator and limner were three distinct roles that might all be done by the same person, or by two or three different individuals.


conservation survey notes 2

Several things to say about Balliol MS 149, a 14th century collection of sermons – on f 122r, the most eye-catching feature is the big manicula, aka Nota Bene hands, used as pointers the way we might use arrows, highlighting, underlining etc. How many fingers??

The handwriting is also notable – more or less a documentary hand such as we would expect to find in charters and other administrative documents, here unusually used in a formal book context. And lots of different types of text correction: rubbing out and writing over, superscript interpolations indicated by the still-current caret ^, dotting under the word to be deleted, crossing out… why has crossing out survived and expunction (underdotting) not? More about types of errors and corrections and technical notes on same - see especially IV.vii and V.ii.


more about manuscripts

Updating our online lists of Balliol’s medieval manuscripts: the condition survey of medieval books is progressing well. Each time we finish another 50, the descriptor [good/fair/poor/unusable] is added to its list entry in square brackets, to indicate its current physical condition as assessed by Oxford Conservation Consortium staff in 2014. Those in Poor condition will not normally be produced for researchers, and those rated Unusable not produced at all, until conservation treatment has been carried out in order to prevent further damage during consultation. Poor or Unusable manuscripts may also not be fit to photograph safely, including by staff. If you do want to consult or request images from a manuscript that is not currently in a state to produce or photograph safely, please let us know – active research interest is of course a key factor in determining our conservation priorities.

This doesn’t mean that currently Poor or Unusable manuscripts will be inaccessible forevermore. The survey is being undertaken specifically to inform our decisions about what needs conservation treatment most urgently, and it stands to reason that those in the worst condition and which attract active research interest are most likely to be high on the list.

Neither does it mean that Fair or Good manuscripts can be handled with joyous abandon. (After all, they are all at least 500 years old in order to qualify for the title ‘medieval’.) Production of manuscripts is always at staff discretion, and readers are expected to arrive with good handling skills and/or be instructed in them – and put them to use!

More ‘before’ pictures of Interesting Problems in manuscripts coming shortly – and starting next year, we look forward to posting ‘after’ pictures of the ‘ex-poor’!


conservation survey notes 1

A new series of illustrated posts inspired by  interesting things encountered during the condition survey of Balliol’s medieval manuscripts – a bookworm’s-eye view of common and unusual problems and solutions, if you will. We begin with Balliol MS 156 (12 century Jerome on Isiaiah), f 2v. ??????????

At first glance the text looks rather abraded, as though it has been rubbed. But lift the page and the real problem becomes clear…


Classic iron-gall ink corrosion – the ink was made too acidic and has eaten away the parchment, leaving more or less, and in some cases letter-precisely, text-shaped holes. Fortunately, in this manuscript at least the problem does not continue past the first few folios – somebody must have made a new pot of ink with rather less acidic proportions! Also clearly visible here are several old parchment fills or repairs at the edges of the page.

report Nov 2013 – Feb 2014

A) Reader & visitor numbers by month

November: 7 researchers over 12 days consulting Medieval   mss (3), Swinburne & Clough papers, George Malcolm papers, Nicolson   diaries, Geach papers, Jenkyns paper.  70 non-research visitors.

December: 5 researchers over 6 days consulting Medieval   mss (3), George Malcolm papers. 24 non-research visitors.

January: 7 researchers over 10 days consulting Hill   papers, medieval mss (2), Nicolson diaries, David Urquhart papers, Jenkyns   papers. 11 non-research visitors.

February: 11 researchers over 18 days consulting Medieval   mss (2), RBD Morier papers,  David   Urquhart papers, Chalet papers, AL Smith papers, Jowett papers (2), Pugin   drawings, Mallet papers, Nicolson diaries, Morier family papers. 8 non-research visitors.

Researcher profiles: 30 individuals. Nearly all researchers in person are academics and grad students (mostly external to Oxford), with the occasional family historian, Old Member or independent researcher. Research visits range in length from a few hours to several days, sometimes more; most are a day or two. The length of a visit does not reflect the number of documents produced or the amount of attention/assistance required.

B) Remote enquiries

Nov: 96
Dec: 64
Jan: 86
Feb: 81
total: 327

Number of remote enquiries in 2013: 924 (avg 77/month, nearly 4 new ones every working day)

C) St Cross activities


  • Planning a set of book dummies demonstrating stages of codex construction and composition from Martlet Bookbinders (Dr Allan Barton)
  • Planning ‘Maps & Monsters’ school session with Library staff for Access Officer’s school groups
  • Temporary kitchen hoardings are looking nice with photos (by ACS and Ian Taylor) mostly of items from the college archives & captions from Dr Jones’ 750th exhibition (St Cross in Sept/Oct ‘13)


  • 7600 images posted on Flickr in response to research enquiries Nov 13 – Feb 14. 600 000+ views of individual images (cf 300K in October, 400K December, 500K January).
  • Browning letters project – meeting with project leaders from Baylor University, Waco TX; conference call with them plus head of digitising re technical matters & visit to Texas in May for Browning’s birthday-related events
  • Social media Nov-Feb:
    • Facebook: 29 posts, mostly expanded & illustrated versions of tweets. 295 total likes
    • Twitter: advertising talks/events, Movember heritage photos & quiz based on Balliol portraits (several Old Members liked this!), live tweets during NaNoWriMo sessions, images online notices, WW1 resources notices, Balliol Novelists for NaNoWriMo; 105 new, total 678 followers. I have been recommended as an innovative customer-facing tweeter! (must be a good thing…)
    • Blog: 13 new posts, avg 800 views/month, top search terms: latin grace, Balliol family, chapel stained glass, officer cadets in WW1
    • Volunteer (s) – Will Beharrell from UCL library course, 4 days moving vestry unit collections and listing Richard Hare letters. Very helpful at just the right time!


  • Medieval mss condition survey is well underway, 125+ done since January – not catalogue descriptions or adding to Mynors. This is the first survey of the mss’ physical condition in modern times. We will be able to compare this with reader and enquirer data plus teaching/exhibition requirements to determine conservation treatment priorities, and notify potential researchers in advance of the occasional temporary access restriction where necessary, for years to come.
  • Investigating possibility of test case photography of title deeds with Melissa Terras at UCL with Polynomial Texture Mapping



  • NaNoWriMo Come Write In sessions on Thursday mornings
  • biweekly meetings of medieval mystics reading group (Prof N Palmer, SEH)
  • Unlocking Archives 7 (Ian Mertling-Blake) on the Book of Kells
  • Unlocking Archives 8 (Lynda Dennison) on the Cambridge Index of Images in Oxford College Library Manuscripts
  • MSS and early print seminar for 2nd yr English students by Balliol Fellowsray
  • Adam von Trott exhibition for participants in symposium at Mansfield College

December: tour & display for Latin in Medieval Britain lexicography conference; Anna visit to Durham Cathedral Library

January: Balliol Fellow & group of MPhil students for early printed books workshop (FG)

February: Balliol Fellow and (Balliol +) students for medieval mss seminar


William Gray and his books – lecture


Dr Katherine Zieman

formerly Assistant Professor of English and Medieval Studies at Notre Dame University
will give two Oliver Smithies Lectures in Hilary term:

‘Miraculous Multitasking and Other Stories in the History of Attention’

on Thursday 20 February 2014, 5.00pm (5th Week) in Lecture Room XXIII, Balliol College.

‘William Gray and His Books’

on Thursday 13 March 2014, 5.00pm (8th Week) in Lecture Room XXIII, Balliol College.

William Gray was the single most important donor (by far) to Balliol’s 15th century library. More than half the surviving library of medieval Balliol came from Gray.

Lecture Room XXIII is underneath the Senior Common Room, near the top right corner of this map of Balliol.




reading closely

tcd1An interesting enquiry from last year, demonstrating that the internet is a brilliant research tool, but that like any source it needs careful interpretation, and that not all immediately available information is correct or complete.

The enquirer requests information on William Hussey 1867-1939, son of Thomas Hussey of Kensington, stating that the images sent with the enquiry, of a Ladies’ Challenge Cup medal,  clearly show that WH rowed for Balliol when they won that particular race in 1891.

The enquirer has probably searched for something like ‘ladies challenge cup 1891’ and found the Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ladies’_Challenge_Plate for the Henley Regatta’s Ladies’ Challenge Plate race, won by a Balliol crew in 1891, and concluded that Hussey must have been part of this crew.

In fact the medal shows nothing of the kind, and a closer look reveals quite a different story.

First I checked whether William Hussey had indeed been a member of Balliol – the college registers are not 100% infallible, but they are pretty good. No result, so back to the medal for other clues. A little more scratching around online revealed several things that didn’t add up to support the Henley & Balliol assumption:

  • Date: Henley is always held over the first weekend in July, but 1 July 1891 was a Wednesday. (thanks Time and Date!)tcd2
  • Race name: the Ladies’ Challenge Plate race at Henley has never been known as the Ladies’ Challenge Cup – it is the only Henley trophy that isn’t the Something Cup.
  • Winner name: the LCP is an Eights race, not an individual one, so even if each member of the winning Eight had a commemorative medal, it would not be inscribed ‘won by [any single name]’. Cf. Henley commemorative medals at http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/18783/lot/59/, a particularly nice find after searching for images of the LCP medals for visual comparison.
  • Double-checking with another source – even supposing everything else was somehow wrong, we have a photograph of the Balliol Eight that did win the LCP in 1891; the rowers were: Rofe, Rawstone, Darbishire, Mountmorres, Fielding, T Rogers, Farmer, F Rogers, cox Craig-Sellar. Not surprisingly, no Hussey.

So if it was not at all connected with the Henley Royal Regatta or Balliol’s win there in 1891, what is this medal? Balliol-based evidence stops here, but ‘we have no further information about this’ seemed a bit abrupt when most of what I had already found out was from non-Balliol sources anyway. Besides, by this time I wanted an answer to the puzzle, if I could find one!

Look at it again – the intertwined letters on the medal look like T C D, in a distinctively Irish style, and Trinity College Dublin’s Regatta does include a Ladies’ Challenge Cup race. But to check up further, one might try looking at the club’s own site: http://www.tcdlife.ie/clubs/boat/archive.php. The answer is probably in Raymond Blake’s book, In Black and White: A History of Rowing at Trinity
College Dublin
. My research ends here; I can’t spend any more time on this enquiry, and the answer won’t add to knowledge of the Balliol archives.

And there are still questions: why should the medal read TCD when TCD’s boat club has been known as the Dublin University Boat Club since 1847? Is the DUBC (TCD) Ladies’ Challenge Cup race rowed by singles or eights? Is there any evidence at all that this is a rowing medal?

It’s rare that answers to archival enquiries are either complete or absolute – often, the best we can hope for is to add another interesting piece to the puzzle, or point in another direction.

MSt Session on Early Printed Books


Post by Rachel McDonald, Assistant Librarian

On Tuesday, Balliol’s Historic Collections Centre at St Cross Church hosted a session on early printed books for students on Oxford’s MSt programme in English Literature 1550-1700, specifically the course on ‘Bibliography, Theories of Text, History of the Book, Manuscript Studies’.  The session was led by Dr Adam Smyth and the books on display were chosen for the manuscript interventions that they contain, which evidence readers’ interaction with the texts and the actual physical books.  They included:

  • A 1633 edition of Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia (also containing The Defence of Poesie and Astrophel and Stella), with scraps of manuscript music in the binding and an ink geometrical diagram on the front free endleaf;
  • Margaret Cavendish’s Poems, and Phancies (1664) with four lines of verse in ink on the inside upper board;
  • A volume from the extensive tract collection of Nicholas Crouch (student and fellow of the College, 1634-1690) containing pamphlets on natural wonders such as floods and earthquakes, alongside pamphlets detailing murders and other news items!

manuscript annotation in Balliol’s copy of Margaret Cavendish’s poems, as above.

As well as supporting the students’ studies in a very obvious and tangible way – yes, the students were allowed to handle the books! – the session provided them with an insight into the practicalities of academic research in this field.  Like some of the items on display, there is much early printed material in college libraries that is uncatalogued or, at the very best, under-catalogued.  Fiona (Acting Librarian) encouraged the students to take advantage of the expertise and knowledge of College Librarians, and warned against relying on SOLO for a definitive answer to all college collection enquiries.


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