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

#AskArchivists Day

Today is Ask Archivists Day! I’m not in the office this week, so I won’t be answering any questions today, but please send them anyway and I’ll gradually post answers here. In the meantime, here are the Balliol answers to a few sample popular questions posted on the Ask Archivists blog

What is your oldest record?

– A charter regarding a grant of the Church of St. Lawrence-Jewry, London, with rents etc., from Robert, Abbot of St. Sauve, Montreuil, to John de St. Lawrence,  etc. ca.1200

Are your records online? or will they be?

– Some are, but online records are not much use without good cataloguing and indexing. The amount of information on our website is growing all the time:

If I come to your archives, do I have to pay?

– No. We do not charge either for access in person or for answering enquiries. We do, however, appreciate and encourage donations.

Do you have photos of my home town?

– Most of the photographs we have are of Balliol College itself. We have very few of other places. A gazetteer of places with different kinds of association with Balliol College is on our website at http://archives.balliol.ox.ac.uk/History/gazetteer.asp – we do not have photographs of most of these places.

How many kilometres of shelves do you have?

– about 1500 metres of shelving or 1.5 km.

Can I find my ancestors at the archives?

– Only if said ancestors were members of Balliol College. Our web page on ‘Tracing a Balliol Man’ has more details about the kinds of information we do and don’t have about individual former students.

What does it take to become an archivist?

  • a good degree in something. It does not have to be in history. Mine isn’t.
  • some practical experience of working in an archive, probably volunteering for a few weeks or the equivalent
  • admission to a UK professional course in archives administration usually requires a year’s graduate trainee experience in an archive, or the equivalent
  • a willingness to move for work – many jobs for recently qualified archivists are short term contracts
  • ideally, a combination of intellectual inquisitiveness, secretarial meticulousness, ability to work as part of a team and alone, excellent communication skills (both in writing and in person) and in many cases enough physical fitness to go up and down ladders, carry boxes, navigate awkward stairways and impossibly narrow corridors, and climb around in attics and basements.

Which document is the most precious in your collection?

– That depends how you define precious. We don’t have any manuscripts of Chaucer, copies of Magna Carta or the Mappa Mundi, gorgeously illustrated medieval liturgical books, First Folio Shakespeares or even a first edition of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and he was a Balliol man. But for someone who is looking for information about their great-grandfather, a rowing photo from the 1880s may be very precious indeed. You can see some of our medieval manuscripts at Early Images Oxford and a growing number of our varied kinds of treasures online at our Flickr page.

Oh, and one other thing about Ask Archivists Day: if you have questions about a particular archive, you don’t have to wait to ask until 9 June or any particular day. We’re not waiting for your questions – we’re answering them all the time, and working to make our records better available to more researchers. So you can ask more questions! and find more of the answers. That’s what we’re here for.

You can follow @AskArchivists on Twitter.

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