– 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.

More AskArchivists Q&A

Sorry for radio silence lately – I haven’t been at my desk much, between packing, moving, unpacking and shelving archives and manuscripts. We have started moving the medieval manuscripts, the last main category of collections to be shifted, and are about 30% through those. Still to come are large numbers of cumbersome 19th century ledgers from the archives – heavy and awkward to move, and very numerous. The move is on track but will still take the rest of the summer, and our target opening date of 1 October (Monday 3 October in effect) stands.

I am not doing any interesting fossicking about in the records these days, but here are some more responses to Ask Archivists Day queries.

I can’t give credit where it is due for all these questions as I’m frankly totally confused about where they originate with all the retweets and so on, but they are all excellent and I hope their authors find these answers and find them interesting! Thanks to the Bod @bodleianlibs for collating their Q&As – I tried scanning the Twapper Keeper (who thinks up these things??) but started to go cross-eyed, and Bod did a great job of smoothing it all out into a readable list.

Q: What kind of building is your archive in?

A:  The college archives used to be housed partly in the Library and mostly under the stairs to the Hall, in Balliol’s main campus on Broad Street. They were all consulted in the Library, which meant taking material outside and down the quad every time anyone wanted them. The manuscripts were all in the Library. Other special collections were housed in half a dozen other places (mostly below ground) dotted around college. None of the repository spaces was environmentally controlled. However, big changes have happened recently, and all of Balliol’s archives and manuscripts collections are all currently being moved to new premises in St Cross Church, Holywell, which has been converted for use as the college’s historic collections centre.  At last we will be able to provide proper housing for the collections and a good research environment for readers! More about that project here. The collections are closed to enquirers in person during the move; we plan to open to researchers in October 2011.

Q: Why isn’t a library an archive?

A:  Strictly speaking, a library contains printed books while an archive holds manuscript items and collections of papers. The ways in which these categories of written material are collected, arranged, described and used are quite different. In practice, however, many libraries also hold manuscript books and archival collections, and many archives have collections of printed books (usually as research reference sources, but sometimes as part of an individual’s or organisation’s archive). The line between librarians and archivists is an easier one to draw as they have different approaches to their types of collections; professional training in these two fields is distinct. Here’s a useful summary of the basic difference from Library & Archives Canada and I recommend the rest of this useful introduction to archives and archival research to anyone using primary sources.

Q: How many kilometers of shelves do you have in your depots? And are they all used?

A:  There are about 1500m of shelving in the new repository at St Cross. I won’t be absolutely sure until all the collections have been moved in, but I expect to have about 10% left for future growth in the archives and manuscripts collections. The repository for the early printed books will be completely full, but we do not expect any additions to that collection. This is not much room in a new repository for future expansion of the archives, but the tradeoff is much-increased space in the library in Balliol’s main Broad Street campus, which is urgently needed to support the teaching and learning of current students and Fellows.

 Q: Any ideas how to befriend an archivist?

A: Do your homework before making an enquiry, honour your appointments and don’t ask to bring coffee or wet coats into the reading room 🙂

Q: What item is missing from your archive or collection that you would most want to obtain and why?

A: Balliol is the only one of the earliest foundations in Oxford not to have any of its medieval accounts anymore; our administrative records don’t survive from earlier than the 16th century. Why is it missing? I think this was probably the result of a bursarial clearout some time in the 17th or 18th century, since medieval records are not mentioned in any of our early archival lists. Why would I like to have them back? Medieval accounts are a fascinating snapshot of ordinary life, full of payments concerning not only teaching and learning, dons and students, but cooks, plumbers, roofers, carpenters, laundresses and the other myriad people who made (and make) the place work. I am pretty sure Balliol’s medieval accounts really are gone, but it’s more pleasant to hope, very faintly, that some antiquarian scholar made off with them at some point, and that one day they may turn up. That kind of thing does happen occasionally, so one can dream…

Q: Do you have pics (on your website?) of archival exhibitions?

A: This question might mean do we have pictures of exhibitions (how the exhibitions were laid out) or of exhibits (the things themselves). I’ll assume it means the latter; yes, here.

Q: How long have you used Twitter and do you think it’s successful?

A: I started tweeting in May 2011, 35 tweets so far. My tweets also show up on the Balliol Archives & Manuscripts facebook page. Hard to know exactly what ‘success’ means in tweeting terms. My aims are to make what I do each day a little more visible, to increase awareness and use of our web resources (hopefully some of that use will give rise to enquiries and visits as well, but it may also help to answer some questions outright), to make contacts that allow me to share useful information about the wider world of archives and manuscripts with Balliol people and my other researchers, and as a lone archivist to stay connected to colleagues, ideas and developments from that wider world. So far so good – time will tell!

Q: What are your top priorities currently when it comes to archiving? Which records are most important?

A: My top priority at the moment is to move all the collections into St Cross and have systems in place in time to open for researchers on 1 October. (And can I say I don’t like the word archiving.) The intention is to have no records in the archives which are not important, of course, but then all sorts of records can become important later in their archival history for reasons that could not have been dreamt of earlier on.  But institutionally speaking, the ‘first grab’ items would be College Meeting minutes and the ancient statutes and other foundation documents. Cases could also be made for the medieval manuscripts and some of the modern personal papers collections – this can be a highly subjective question!

Q: How many archives are also on Facebook? Please post links to your Facebook pages!

A: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Balliol-College-Archives-and-Manuscripts/123305954394903


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