– 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!


Unlocking Archives MT 2015

Lunchtime talk: Unlocking Archives

a seminar series about research in Balliol College’s special collections

‘Swinburne, Balliol and the pursuit of books’

Dr Rikky Rooksby

Monday 19 October 2015, 1-2pm

Balliol Historic Collections Centre

St Cross Church, Manor Road

* all welcome *

In this illustrated talk Rikky Rooksby discusses the life and legacy of the Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne and the poet’s connection with Balliol, and relates the story of his own Swinburne book collection which is now part of Balliol College Library. He also reflects on thirty years’ experience of book-collecting.

Feel free to bring your lunch. The talk will last about half an hour, to allow time for questions and discussion afterwards, and a closer look at some of the Balliol special collections material discussed.

Questions? library@balliol.ox.ac.uk

archivist’s day

Following on from last month’s details of a typical month’s enquiries, I am also sometimes asked what I do all day. Here’s a sample, of a day mostly in the office, without researchers in person:

check emails before leaving home so the wheels can turn in my brain as I cycle

arrive – begin collating previous month’s enquiry & event numbers for the monthly report

phone rings – do I want any office furniture? I do not.

email arrives from library with blurb for forthcoming event poster that needs posting asap. Type up poster with illustration, print, take out to notice board with stepstool, key and some extra drawing pins. While there, passersby request entry to the church. This is not usually permitted but passerby identifies self as visiting lecturer.

Give visitors a tour and produce Ancient Document for them. They depart; log visit on calendar and DARS (alumni database).

Post forthcoming event poster as a blog post & point to it from Facebook and Twitter.

discuss forthcoming cleaning schedule with scout – needs planning as some tasks can’t be done and some areas can’t be cleaned while researchers are here

phone rings – family history enquiry. Enquirer does not use internet so take notes. Research, respond, log query.

Tot up the last week’s enquiries in monthly enq record document, answer half dozen out of 70+ for the month that haven’t been finished yet. Forward a couple of requests for permission to publish now that the requesters have sent in their paperwork.

Finish and post monthly report, and point to blog post from FB and Twitter.

Several of this month’s last outstanding enquiries require photography of short sections of 3 different medieval mss for overseas academics and grad students. Fetch mss, take photos, process half and post online.

Late for lunch! Lights off, alarm on,  lock door, check other door, lock gate, cycle to college.

Answer two queries from SCR members while eating and promise answer to another after checking sources.

Stop by College Office to pick up set of records for deposit in the archives. Check post. Cycle back to St Cross. Avoid running into tourists standing in middle of road to take photographs; avoid cars backing out of open-ended Broad St parking & attempting to drive wrong way down 1 way street. Alarms off, lights on, etc.

Process remaining photos from the morning, post online, notify enquirers. Return medieval mss to repository.

Record lunchtime enquiries and answer the one that needed sources checking.

Register and list contents of new accession picked up at lunchtime, package in acid-free folders and box, put away in repository.

Scan & send images of a document requested for internal administrative enquiry.

Finish collection description started earlier in the week. Post online. Finish numbering, arranging and repackaging collection (fortunately small) and return to repository. Create fonds level description for Archives Hub, submit. Create brief description for NRA-Discovery, submit. Link to new collection description from FB and twitter.

Put files got out for reference during the day back in the repository and reference books back on shelves.

Lights out, alarms on, stop by Broad Street with a book requested by a current student – collections remain as borrowable as ever and there are no borrowing facilities at St Cross.

monthly report September 2015

A few numbers about what was happening at St Cross during September:

  • Number of enquiries (email etc): 74
  • Number of researchers in person: 8
  • Number of person-days in the reading room: 8
  • Collections consulted: Greene-Reid (2), Chalet, Jowett (2), TH Green, Harris, Nicolson diaries, college records
  • No of non-research visitors: ca 415   (6 individual visitors, 388 Open Doors, 20 evensong)
  • blog posts: 7
  • Flickr uploads: images from MSS 92, 96, 117 and 263
  • interesting events: Balliol intern Robin completed 8 weeks cataloguing; all library staff and Robin involved in Oxford Open Doors days and the opening of Fiona’s Swinburne exhibition;  Evening Prayer service in St Cross for patronal feast; display on Broad St site for Gerard Manley Hopkins Society conference; CILIP RBSCG conference in London on making ‘hidden’ collections more visible; English Literary Heritage conference in London on how academic researchers and professional staff can work together to increase access to (particularly) museums, houses and places with literary associations and collections; individual visits from Old Members, benefactors and visiting lecturers.


Open Doors Questions

Here are some of the questions staff were asked at St Cross during 2015’s Open Doors days – and some answers:


Q: Request information about the building conversion project

A: See Dr John Jones’ History of St Cross.

Q: How was the building project funded?

A: See Dr John Jones’ History of St Cross.

Q: Has St Cross church been deconsecrated?

A. No. It has been decommissioned and is no longer a parish church, but there is no question of deconsecration. The conversion project has sensitively retained the ecclesiastical character of the building, preserved the furnishings of the chancel and left the nave space sufficiently flexible to allow for occasional services, which are held at least annually.

Q: What is the ecclesiastical status of St Cross Church now?

A:  It has been decommissioned and is no longer a parish church. St Cross last had its own vicar in 1962. It is part of the benefice of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, in the High Street. Occasional services are held in the chancel by St Mary’s clergy or Balliol’s chaplain.

Q: Is there a connection between St Cross church and St Cross College?

A: The name. The church gave its name to the road, which gave its name to the first site of the college – see the College History.

Q: Who painted the chancel and nave ceilings?

A: See p.17 of Dr John Jones’ History of St Cross.

Q: What happened to the pipe organ at St Cross?

A: It was dismantled in early 2009 under the direction of the Reverend Alan Matchett, Rector of Adare, Limerick, and taken to Ireland.

Q: Were old memorial stones used to make the new floor at St Cross?

A: Yes, stones that were already there. Some had to be relocated, ie from an aisle to the nave, so that they would remain visible, but in many cases it was clear that the location of a memorial stone did not correspond to a specific burial below it. Although at least a hundred people lie interred within the walls, and lead coffins and a couple of skeletons were exposed briefly during the restoration and conversion work, the new load-bearing floors in the aisle and vestry area were installed without (further) disturbing any burials. No memorials on the walls were disturbed or inscriptions destroyed.

Q: How old is the stained glass in St Cross?

A: 19th and 20th century only. Here are Dr John Jones’ notes on the stained glass.

Q: The information by the Stainer window at the east end of the south aisle says the glass was made by Powell & Sons of Whitehall. They were based in East London – should that say Whitechapel?

A: It should say Whitefriars (it does now). They started in premises off Fleet Street and moved in 1923 to Wealdstone – west London.

Q: Is Balliol College responsible for the upkeep of St Cross churchyard?

A: The City Council is responsible for the upkeep of all ancient city churchyards, all of which were closed in the mid-19th century. Holywell Cemetery is not connected with St Cross church or churchyard.

Q: Which ‘St Catherine’s’ does the war memorial plaque in the south aisle refer to? The College of that name was not founded until later.

A: It’s the same St Catherine’s in a previous form – see their website for an explanation of St Catherine’s pre-college history.


Q: Whose signature is on the 1588 charter mounted near the west door?

A: The text is heavily abbreviated: ‘Exctiatur per Willm Brend’ and a notarial mark. This expands to ‘Excutiantur per Willelmum Brendon’ – translated, ‘Examined by William Brendon’. (Thanks to Michael Riordan for his help on this one!) We do not yet know who William Brendon was. The seal is the Great Seal of Elizabeth I.

Q: Request information about the Officer Training Corps billeted at Balliol during WW1

OCB to be precise: Officer Cadet Battalion No. 6 Balliol College was housed at Balliol from 1916. More details from Balliol and the University Archives.

Q: Are there any lantern slides or glass plate negatives in the collection?

A: Barely half a dozen glass plate negatives of miscellaneous subjects.

Q: What is the oldest document in the collections here?

A: A title deed of ca. 1180; more details.

Q: What was the first printed book?

A: The Bible as printed by Johannes Gutenberg in 1455. A useful article from the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

Q: What were books written on before printing?

A: Most western books were hand written on parchment – prepared animal skin, mainly sheep and calf. Paper was also used but it was extremely expensive and is not as durable as parchment, so relatively few medieval books on paper survive. Some early books were also printed on parchment, and imitated the look and style of manuscript books as closely as possible. The Medieval Manuscripts blog written by British Library curatorial staff is a great resource to learn more about medieval manuscript (handwritten) books.

Balliol College

Q: How do Oxford colleges work and how to they relate to University departments, central admin etc?

A: Good question! Think of it as a bit like the devolved government of Canada, with provincial governments as colleges and the federal government as the University.

Q: What is the college library like?

A: While colleges’ special collections are open by arrangement to any researcher, college libraries are normally for the use of college members only. Balliol Library website, some images


Q: How long is this exhibition up for and how available is it to the public?

A: The exhibition will be up until November and groups or individuals are welcome to make appointments to view it. Further public opening hours may be announced later.

Q: Do these collections get used?


Q: Are these collections digitised?

A: Some are. More will be. Images are online.

Q: How do I get to consult the books and collections kept here?

A: Have a look at the collection descriptions and catalogues on our website, and then get in touch to make an appointment.

Q: Do you have to wear gloves to handle documents?

A: Some repositories require them to be worn for handling all materials. Some require them only for handling photographic formats (prints, negatives, glass plates). I’m with the latter. If you are wearing them, remember that gloves are not magic and will not prevent you from causing many kinds of damage to the manuscript: avoid touching text, decoration and damaged areas with gloves on.

Q: I coordinate an MA course in archaeology and built heritage at another university. Can I bring my students to see the conversion of this building?

A: Of course! Always delighted to have students visit and to talk with them about the building and the collections. We’ll make an appointment.

Q: I am a University employee. Can I bring group visits here?

A: Of course! Always delighted to have groups visit and to talk with them about the building and the collections. We’ll make an appointment.

Q: Is this building open all the time?

A: Not for unscheduled access for the general public – it’s in use full time Monday-Friday, throughout the University year and most of the vacations, as Balliol’s special collections centre. For the security of the collections and staff working there, there is no access ‘off the street’ or out of staffed hours – you need to make an appointment and staff will meet you when you arrive. Much of the time there are researchers in the nave, which is used as the invigilated reading room, and unscheduled visitors would be highly disruptive as there is no separate space –  tourists do not have access to the Broad Street Library for the same reason. You CAN make an appointment to visit just to look at the building. More about access to St Cross.

Soldiers of Oxfordshire

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Yesterday I was delighted to attend the launch of a fascinating new exhibition at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock: ‘Above the Dreaming Spires – Oxfordshire’s Great War Aviation Story.’ The exhibition has been curated by Dr Peter Dye, Air Vice-Marshal (ret’d), OBE, former Director General of the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon, and will be open until March 2016.

The exhibition combines original photographs and magnified facsimiles, family and institutional archive material, period and recent printed sources and three-dimensional objects from personal belongings to uniforms and equipment. Many items have been loaned especially for the exhibition by descendants and family members. The county-specific focus means that it’s not solely about those daring young men in their flying machines – we see more of what was going on in wartime aviation in Oxfordshire, such as photos of the airfield on Port Meadow, curriculum notes from the School of Aeronautical Engineering housed at Christ Church in the city of Oxford, and reminiscences of local country people and places by an American airman stationed here. A number of individuals are singled out for their key contributions and for personal stories that help to illustrate the bigger history.

Balliol members Hubert Latham (Balliol 1903) and Hardit Singh Malik (Balliol 1912) both feature prominently in the exhibition, and Balliol contributed digital copies of several photographs of Malik from Francis Urquhart’s photograph albums. Many Balliol men joined the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry – individuals’ wartime careers are sketched in their entries in the Balliol College Register.

For more information about what went on in the colleges and in the city of Oxford during WW1, see Malcolm Graham’s recent book Oxford in the Great War (Pen & Sword, 2014). The Oxfordshire Soldiers’ Museum makes available lots of archive sources, learning resources and publications about the military history of Oxfordshire regiments and military bases and activities in the county.

Dr Dye will be speaking about the exhibition on 2 December at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum.

open days at St Cross

More soon about the Swinburne exhibition that’s just opened at St Cross, but first a few thoughts about other ways we make what goes on behind the usually-locked door of St Cross more visible to the general public during our Open Doors days:

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The Oxford Preservation Trust provides large posters and balloons. They don’t last well in sunshine, so we replace them for the second day! Aside from the obvious festive feel and visual cue they provide, a visually impaired visitor today told us that the bright blue colour alone gave him something useful to steer toward – a good thing to keep in mind.

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Fortunately the weather was warm and dry enough that we could keep the door open. We also tie back the gates – people tend to shut them conscientiously, thinking they are ‘doing the right thing’, and in many circumstances that would be so, but for Open Doors we do want the gates to remain wide open and welcoming!

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Our friendly team of Balliol staff and students and an Oxford Preservation Trust volunteer steward are on hand both at reception and throughout the nave to answer questions about the building’s history, the conversion work, the collections kept here and the current exhibition.

Most frequently asked: ‘Where is the loo?’ (It’s signposted too.)

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A welcoming space – tables have been moved from their usual places in the nave so there is room for free movement throughout the space.

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In addition to whatever exhibition is currently mounted, there are always heritage elements of the building and from Balliol’s special collections on display. The Charter of Incorporation of 1588 is permanently mounted on the wall, and we open its curtain for visitors’s days and have a leaflet available about it.

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A selection of modern printed works supporting the main exhibition is available to browse, and chairs are strategically placed throughout the building – all too rare in museums and galleries…

Copy of DSCN9202The chancel provides a place to sit and read the stacks of information provided, enjoy the painted ceilings and absorb some of the atmosphere of the church building. This is where we site the guest book and OPT visitors’ comments sheets, away from the busyness of the reception desk near the door, in an area visitors will reach only after they have had some time to think about what they have been looking at. Also in the chancel was a notice about the current ecclesiastical status of the church and an announcement of tomorrow evening’s patronal festal service.

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The repository door design, incorporating glass panels, allows a rare glimpse into the sancta sanctorum where only staff have physical access, for obvious security reasons. Visitors can observe the contrast between the traditional design of the church and library shelving on the outside and the light, clean, spare materials used in the repository – and the contrast again between that and the ancient collections stored there.

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Modern printed special collections in the nave shelves are often mistaken for the ‘real old stuff’; we provide descriptions of the various sections of books to explain what’s in them and why they have been moved from the main college library.

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No matter what else is on display, someone is always disappointed if there isn’t at least one medieval manuscript on view during an open day. Today there were two. Thanks to the glass doors again, they didn’t even need to leave the repository, but were displayed with proper supports from a folding table and the workhorse trolley from inside the unit. Both were further supported by a textual description and several prints of much-magnified illuminations from the pages shown.

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Anyone looking into the north repository can also see how the books are stored – horizontally, not stacked – and just how high the ladders are that staff are up and down many times a day. It’s not (just) a sedentary job!

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Many different formats of archives are just visible in the repository, stored on space-saving rolling shelving.

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Despite the solid panels in the doors, it’s possible to get a minimally-restricted view of the manuscripts on display.

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Five years on, we still get numerous questions about the conversion project, so our display board information about it is still available, but we kept the display boards out of the way of likely camera angles.

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There is even a display of images from the collections opposite the loo – so nobody has to look as though they are queuing…

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We had a couple of hundred people in today, considerably fewer than for the same time last year, but the majority enjoyed a very thorough look round the building and the exhibition, and there were no lulls in attendance or times when the church was empty – indeed most of the time there were at least half a dozen in. The numbers and distribution of visitors made for a relaxed atmosphere where people felt welcome to take their time, and there was no jostling for position in front of the exhibition cases. Sheers numbers aren’t everything! We look forward to another good day of Open Doors tomorrow.

Swinburne exhibition

final poster image

‘Industrious but Eccentric: Swinburne at Balliol’

12-13 September 2015, 12.00-4.00pm both days
Balliol Historic Collections Centre, St Cross Church, Manor Road OX1 3UH

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909, Balliol 1856) may not be a household name today, but in the past he was infamous for his shockingly republican and sexual poetry. His work was introduced to children as a standard author in schools, and was so highly regarded by his fellow writers that he was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He remains one of Balliol’s most distinguished former students, and this exhibition uses items from the College’s printed and manuscript special collections to explore the lifelong influence on him of his time at Balliol and the friends he made here. It also marks the 150th anniversary of Atalanta in Calydon (1865), one of his earliest and most significant works.  The critic John Ruskin claimed that it was ‘the grandest thing ever yet done by a youth – though he is a Demoniac youth’.

The exhibition will coincide with Oxford Open Doors, and visitors will also have the chance to explore St Cross Church, one of the oldest buildings in the city (the chancel dates from c.1080). Following a prize-winning restoration, it now houses eight centuries of Balliol’s administrative records, medieval manuscript books, early printed treasures and rich collections of C19-20 personal and family papers.


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