– 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.

Handling archives and manuscripts

So far 2012 has been a busy one with many researchers visiting the Historic Collections Centre. I’ve observed varied technique – or lack thereof – for handling and supporting manuscript books, rare volumes and archives of various formats, and thought I would round up some of the most useful handling guidelines I could find. I’ll be adding them to the website as preparatory reading for all researchers. This will save me barking a lot of ‘Don’t!’s at visitors… Of course I suggest politely really, but the effect is often the same however considerately you break an hour’s silent concentration!

One thing I’ve observed is that researchers often rush when handling manuscripts. This is because they are in a hurry, and because they are excited about their investigations. It can be very damaging to the manuscripts. There are several things researchers should keep in mind:

  • This book is [x] centuries old. We want it to last [x] more centuries.
  • Damage is cumulative, so we need to minimise it during our brief curation or use of this manuscript.
  • Turn pages s*l*o*w*l*y and gently, from the middle of the edge as long as the text doesn’t go right to the edge
  • Avoid touching text, not only with your fingers but with lead weights or papers
  • Don’t lean on the book or push down on pages to make them open more. Think of what is happening to the binding.
  • It is not (usually) the parchment itself that is particularly fragile. It’s the inks and especially the binding.
  • Careful handling is free. Conservation repair work is extremely expensive.

It’s important to take the time to consider each item’s structure and individual needs for correct support – and not only when it first arrives at the desk. The shape of a book and the stresses within its structure change a great deal as the pages are turned, and supports may need to be moved several times during consultation.

The guidelines below concentrate on manuscript volumes, but include and often apply to other formats as well. None of them is complete (in my opinion) so it is important to look at several – or preferably all of them, they’re only short – to get the whole picture.

CAUTION if you’re using these in a library or other quiet area – some of the videos are silent (thanks, BL!) but others are not.

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