I was recently asked: ‘I noticed that quite a bit of material from your archives has been digitized, and that you have put it to fine use by widening access to the collection on the website and through online exhibitions. I wondered how you are going about digitizing the items – are you working in-house, or are you using an external organization to do it, or a mixture of both? Please could you tell me how this is being financed, and if you are aiming to digitize the whole archive or just a part?’ This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked about my digitization programme at Balliol, and it prompted a bit of an essay on how I do things now and how that has changed since I began in October 2010. So here’s is an update to what I was thinking then.
I do the digitising myself – I have an excellent A3 scanner and a serviceable but outdated camera which I’m about to replace. I allocate a few hours a week to scanning & photography so that it progresses regularly, if not quickly, but I am posting about 2000 images a month these days.
The occasional exception is when someone wants to photograph an entire manuscript or series for their own research; in such cases I ask for copies of the images and permission to publish them online and make them freely available to other researchers, with credit to the photographer of course. So far the few people I’ve asked have been very happy to do this, since they have had free access and permission to photograph. (Sometimes their images are not as good as mine, so then I don’t bother!)
There are also numerous documents in the collections that are just too big for me to photograph – eventually, if and when they are asked for, we will have to think about having someone in to photograph them systematically. So far the multiple photos of each that I or the researcher have been able to do has sufficed.
For now at least, I have decided against a systematic digitisation of our microfilms of the medieval manuscripts. This would involve a lot of time and effort to fund and arrange, the images would all be black and white, and of variable quality, and there are knotty questions of copyright as well. Some of the MSS were only partly microfilmed, and none has more than a single full-page perpendicular view for each page – no closeups or angles to get closer to initials, erasures, annotations, marginalia or tight gutters, so there would still be considerable photography to do anyway. Also, see below.
Why don’t you apply for a grant and have a professional photographer do more than you can do yourself?
So far, I’m able to fulfil reprographics orders in a pretty timely manner and to a standard that satisfies enquirers. Aside from cost and time management for individual orders, because I can respond individually and fit them in around my other tasks, the great advantage of doing the digitisation myself is that I am getting to know the collections extremely well. If we had an outside photographer do it, all that direct encounter with each page would go to someone with no real interest in the collections, what a waste. This way, I’m checking in a lot of detail for physical condition, learning to recognise individuals’ handwriting, discovering/replacing missing or misplaced items, prioritising items that need conservation or repackaging, noticing particularly visually attractive bits for later use in exhibitions and so on, and not least ensuring that items are properly numbered – which many are not!
What is the cost?
Do you charge for access?
I always mention that donations are welcome, but in general I do not charge for reprographics. Most of the requests are from within academia, and I think HE institutions have a responsibility to be helpful and cooperative with each other and with the public, particularly when it comes to access to unique items. On the one hand, I know that special collections are extremely expensive to maintain, and often have to sing for their supper, but on the other I know how frustrating it is to be denied the chance to take one’s own photographs and then to be charged the earth for a few images. Institutions like ours, whose own members may need such cooperation from other collections and their curators, should probably err on the side of the
angels er scholars! Most of the other requests for images are for private individuals’ family history research purposes, and since many of those enquirers would otherwise have no contact with Balliol or Oxford, I think it’s good for the relationship between college, university and the wider public to be helpful in this way. Family history is usually very meaningful to researchers, and they remember and appreciate prompt and helpful assistance.
Balliol College reserves the right to charge for permission to publish its images, but may waive this for academic publications.
Are you planning to digitise all the collections or just parts? What are your priorities and how do you determine the order of things to be done next?
Most of the series I’ve put online don’t start with no.1. All the reprographics I do now are in response to specific requests from enquirers, and I don’t seriously intend, or at least expect, to digitize All The Things. Although 40,000 images sounds like a lot, and there’s loads to browse online, I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface; most collections aren’t even represented online – yet… This way, everything I post online I know is of immediate interest to at least one real person – if we did everything starting from A.1, probably most of it would sit there untouched. For the efficiency of my work and for preservation of the originals, digital photography is marvellous, enabling me to make every photo count more than once rather than having to photocopy things repeatedly over the years.
On the other hand, if someone asks for images of one text occupying only part of a medieval book, I will normally photograph the whole thing; or if the request is for a few letters from a file, I will scan the whole file. It’s more efficient in the long run, as a whole is more likely to be relevant to other future searchers than a small part.
What about copyright?
I probably should mark my own photos of the gardens, but I don’t think anybody will be nicking them for a book and making millions with it. As for the images of archives and manuscripts, of course I am careful to avoid publishing anything whose copyright I know to be owned by another individual or institution, but for older material that belongs to Balliol, I’m with the British Library on this one. I think as much as possible should be as available online as possible, for reasons of both access and preservation.
We do have some collections whose copyright is held by an external person or body, and in some of those cases I am permitted to provide a few images (not whole works) for researchers’ private use, but cannot put images online or permit researchers to take their own photos.
How do you make images available?
Now that other online media are available, I am reducing image use on the archives website, to use it as a base for highly structured, mostly text-based pages such as collection catalogues, how-tos, research guides etc, as this information needs to be well organised and logically navigable. These days I am using this blog for mini-exhibitions discussing single themes and one image, or a few at a time.
Flickr is a good image repository for reference, not so much for exhibitions – I’ve written about that at http://balliolarchivist.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/thing-17/
I expect I will have rethought the digitisation process again in a couple of years’ time!
Q: I am looking for information about a former member of the Balliol Boys’ Club. What was the Balliol Boys’ Club and what information do you have about the members?
A: A club for the boys of the St Ebbe’s area of South Oxford was started with Balliol support in 1907 and consolidated in 1921 as a memorial to one of the founding student members, Keith Rae (TEK Rae, Balliol, 1907). It flourished until the late 1960s, when it was swallowed by City developments. The 1921 endowment survives as the Keith Rae Trust which supports Youth Clubs and similar organisations.
The place to start for any researcher is the published history of the Boys’ Club: A Short History of the Balliol Boys’ Club, 1907-1950, by Cyril Bailey, and a later update A History of the Balliol Boys’ Club 1907-1971 with John Roughley and other adding to Bailey’s work. Copies of both editions are often available through second-hand dealers on the internet – try searching with Bookfinder.
Balliol Boys’ Club Papers in the College Archives:
1. Minutes & Membership
- A. Minute books, Balliol Boys’ Club Committee
- B. Register of members 1940-1946, with addresses, employers etc.
- C. Address book, members and friends, n.d. (ca 1930)
2. Log books, recording daily attendances and activities.
3. Club History
- A. Papers concerning the foundation and early days of the Club, 1906-1910.
- B. Papers concerning a scheme to finance the emigration of Club members to Australia, including details of
Herbert Poole and Frank Slatter, who sailed together 29 Jan. 1921.
- C. Papers concerning the building and opening of Keith Rae House, including plans and correspondence with
Edward Rae, 1921 [see also MBP 359].
- D. Papers concerning an extension to Keith Rae House, 1933.
- E. Newspaper cuttings, various dates.
- F. Photographs, various dates.
- G. Typescript, ‘A short history of Balliol Boys’ Club 1907-1950’, by Cyril Bailey (printed at Oxford 1950).
- H. The Master’s file concerning the Club and Keith Rae Trust, 1950-1960.
4. Printed material
- (a) Annual Reports
- i. 1907-1908 to 1909-1910.
- ii. 1919 and 1929-1930 to 1937-1938 lacking 1931-1932 to 1933-1934.
- iii. 1966. Not found July 2003.
- (b) Magazines
- ‘The Balliol Club Magazine’,1913, 1914, 1915,
- ‘The Club at War’, being the War Edition of ‘The Balliol Club Magazine’, issues 1-11 [complete], 1916-1919 [Cordeaux & Merry, University vol., 6774].
- ‘The Balliol Club Magazine’, 1920, 1921, 1924, 1927, 1928, 1931 (“Volume 1”), 1932 (“No 2”), 1933 (“No 3″), 1935 (“No 5”), 1937 (no number) and 1938 (no number).
- (c) Souvenir: ‘The Opening of Keith Rae House, Oxford. Saturday November 19th, 1921’.
- (d) C. Bailey, ‘A Short History of the Balliol Boys’ Club, 1907-1950’, printed in Oxford 1950. There are also duplicates (in some cases several copies) of some of (b)-(d) above; see also MBP 32(2), MISC 43, MISC 79.6.
5. Accounts and financial papers including vouchers and paid cheques for some periods, 1907-1969.
6. Miscellaneous: including award certificates of various kinds (amateur dramatics; athletics); boxing programmes and related material; scraps; relics (trophies etc.).
7. Miscellaneous acquisitions 1986-1993: numerous photographs, cuttings and memorabilia.
8. Papers and correspondence concerning the closure of the Club 1971-3.
9. Arthur Greenwood’s Club Cricket Cap, Club badges and medals. Presented by Aubrey Greenwood, 1993.
10. Club badges presented by A.E. Marchetti and G. Wakeman, 1987; different from each other and the badge in 9. above.
11. The Club’s paid cheques 1932-1933.
12. The cap badge and medals of T.H.K. Rae, killed at Hooge 1915. Presented by Colin Rae 1993.
13. The printing block for the illustration of the new Club House which appears opposite p.24 in Bailey op cit (see 4(d) above).
14. An address by Edward Rae, Balliol Boys’ Club Anniversary Service 19 Nov. 1922.
These records are open to researchers and can be consulted in the usual way, in the college archives at St Cross Cross, Holywell, by prior appointment with the archivist.
The Balliol Boys’ Club magazines for 1913 and 1921 have been digitised and are available to view online here.
Aside from mentions in minutes, accounts of Club Camps etc, Balliol does not have in its records systematic membership lists or other personal information about the involvement of individual Balliol students or local Oxford boys in the Club.
The Balliol Boys’ Club war memorial now hangs in the college archives at St Cross Church, Holywell. All names on the memorial are listed online here.
Access and preservation – pillars of the profession, or, the archivist’s Scilla and Charybdis
I detest being pushed into the role of curmudgeonly dragon, so I wish people would not request to ‘glance through’ (e.g.) 19th century literary papers because they like the subject’s poetry. This is just not a good enough reason to ask to handle fragile, light-sensitive documents that are 150 years old. Use of archives is normally the final step of primary research on a particular thesis (research question), after thorough investigation of secondary and published sources. And I will say so, because my first duty is to the college and the preservation of its collections – otherwise there will soon be nothing left! But thank goodness for digitisation and the huge increase in access it makes possible. I am as committed to increasing access to the information within the collections as I am to physical preservation of the originals.
While the corollary of increased access via digitisation is increased preservation of the original, its flip side is decreased access to the original. I do not produce manuscripts that have been digitised except for codicological queries that truly cannot be answered by consulting the facsimile. There is something special about direct contact with an ancient codex, but the fact is that every exposure to light, fluctuations in temperature and humidity and handling, however careful, inevitably causes cumulative and (at least in the case of light) irreversible damage to paper and parchment.
Access and preservation often pull in opposite directions, and the needs of the reader and those of the archives can appear to be in conflict. But archivists have to hold these two poles in some kind of balance, because without preservation there will soon be no access, and without access – and I emphasise that in most cases the important thing is access not necessarily to the physical objects but to the information they contain – preservation would be pointless.
Q: The manuscript scans on flickr are very exciting! Are there plans for a full systematic digitization? And do you take requests?
A: Thank you! Most of the medieval manuscript books have been microfilmed over the years and I’m looking into digitisation of the microfilms in the first instance, as less invasive for the MSS. Whether we go ahead with that depends on cost and quality of the end product – I’m not convinced scratchy b/w films are worth it, but on the other hand most of our MSS are unornamented, so little information is lost in black and white.
Obviously digital images would be better (colour for one thing) and images like those on Early Images at Oxford for all the MSS would be the ideal, but there isn’t budget or time for that, so the digitisation I do so far is in reaction to specific scholarly requests (hence often partial) rather than systematic. It also depends on the physical state of the manuscript – we’re part of the Colleges Conservation Consortium but of course it’s a long process.
As far as digitising the archives is concerned, again it’s reactive rather than systematic and is subject to preservation considerations. After about 1550 many of the documents are bigger than A3, sometimes A2 or even bigger; they’ve always been stored folded down to A4 or smaller, and there’s just no way I can scan those. But the little medieval deeds, though several hundred years older, are generally easily scannable. It’s a question of time and priorities – eventually they would make an excellent basis for an online palaeography learning resource, as well as for the information they contain.
A useful note about the early development of colleges in Oxford:
‘Before these Colleges were erected, the scholars who were educated in the Halls or Inns subsisted there at their own expence, or that of opulent Prelates or Noblemen ; but many of the youth of the kingdom, and perhaps the greater part, were educated in St. Frideswide’s Priory, Oseney Abbey, and other religious houses in Oxford and its vicinity. As the Colleges, however, increased in the number and value of their endowments, the scholars and dependents on religious houses began to decrease.
‘In Colleges, at first, none were educated but those who were admitted upon the foundation ; but when learning, and the love of learning, began to be more extensively diffused, those establishments were resorted to by independent members, under the names of Commoners, and Gentlemen Commoners.’
- Alexander Chalmers, A history of the colleges, halls, and public buildings attached to the University of Oxford, including the lives of the founders, ill. by a series of engravings (1810)
available online at http://www.archive.org/details/historyofcollege02chaluoft