– 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.

Intercultural communication 2

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Before writing this paper, I had never thought about intercultural communication per se, and particularly not in connection with my work, so I had to investigate a bit. It seems that the usual definition of ‘intercultural’ has to do with national boundaries, geographical distance and/or ethnic background, and language. I did find some examples of intercultural communication that included factors such as different education systems or different generations in age, and I think a wider definition could be useful, because when I thought about the intercultural communication that forms an important part of my work as an archivist, in fact differences in language and geographical or ethnic culture were the least important.

Most of the enquiries I receive are in English, and those in other languages are usually from university academics, very similar in tone and content to scholarly enquiries from any English-speaking country. The global scholarly community is a culture of its own, and in many ways crosses national and linguistic borders. In many cases, scholars who come to use Balliol’s collections know more about the specific manuscripts they are using than I do.

The cultural differences I deal with, particularly in questions concerning family history or the modern papers collections, are those across generations, social class and levels of education. And perhaps the one people both inside and outside Oxford most often find confusing is that of cultural and linguistic differences between Balliol and the rest of the world – even between Balliol and other colleges in Oxford. For instance, every college has a head, a principal – but the various colleges call this position Master, Warden, Principal, President, Warden, Provost, Dean, Rector and Regent. Most of the colleges’ functions are similar, but they are combined in different ways and often called different things.

As the college archivist, my responsibilities fall into two categories: to ensure that the archives and manuscripts survive in at least as good a condition as they have now for future generations, and to make both the original manuscripts and as much information about them as possible as widely accessible as possible. This article will concentrate on access – this includes most of the more ‘visible’ parts of my work: cataloguing, digital photography, answering enquiries, producing documents for visiting researchers, composing presentations of various kinds about the collections both as physical exhibitions and on the website and very often doing research on the collections myself in order to be able to explain and interpret them for enquirers. On average I receive 500-600 enquiries every year, representing the many completely different audiences I work to (re)interpret the records to and for: current college administrative departments, student members of Balliol past and present, outside scholars with specific interests ranging from medieval history to modern architecture, and family and local historians.

Most of the old colleges in Oxford now have at least a part-time professional archivist. This has happened mostly in the last 10 years – Balliol is one of the oldest colleges in Oxford and I am its first professional archivist. Most of the newer colleges do not have significant volumes of archives yet, and archival enquiries are dealt with between the librarian and the college office. Records management, including management of electronic born-digital records, is a substantial subject for another time… We are all responsible for cataloguing our collections, responding to enquiries from both inside and outside the college, making documents available to readers and arranging for preservation and conservation work where needed.

Because there are many archivists in Oxford with rather similar jobs and interests, and yet we all work alone as the only archivist in our own colleges, we keep in touch and are often in contact, whether asking each other for help with peculiar handwriting (mostly modern – medieval hands are much clearer and more consistent!), referring errant enquirers to the correct college or trying to work out the similarities and differences in the ways our financial officers (bursars) deal and have dealt in past  centuries with for example buying and selling land or arranging the construction of new buildings. Our efforts at intercultural communication are often collaborative – for those who are aware of its archival richness, Oxford’s highly devolved structure and complicated history can make it hard to navigate unaided, and researchers often need to consult collections in more than one repository. We are also conscious that for too long most of Oxford’s own students and senior members have been almost unaware of the amazing holdings of archives and manuscripts in their own institutions, and we work within our own colleges and together across the university to encourage interest and research from them.

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The next post describes Balliol’s special collections and is more or less a footnote to the already rambling discussion of intercultural communication; if you are more interested in following that thread, skip to the post after next – or in more succinct German, direkt zum übernächsten Beitrag.

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