– 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.

Q&A access to college collections and using archives for historical research

Q: I need to use primary sources for my essay/dissertation. Are there interesting sources in College archives? Where do I start?

A: The Lonsdale Curator is always glad to hear from students and tutors and to discuss potential sources in the College archives and elsewhere. At the moment I have students working on club and society records, the Swinburne Papers, the Jowett Papers and the Urquhart Papers. While college libraries are normally open only to members of that college, college archives and manuscript collections are open to anyone with a bona fide research question that requires access to the original source material. Primary sources are very exciting, but they are not always the most efficient way to get distilled information – after all, the reason or method in which the information was originally gathered and recorded, whether 25 years or a century or more ago, may well have had nothing to do with the kinds of information you want to get out of that record, or the way we think about it now. So make sure you exhaust secondary sources first – someone may have done a lot of the legwork for you!

Here’s something I prepared earlier about using archives for historical research:

These readings are recommended for anyone planning any type of research project that will require consultation of archival or manuscript material.

  • from the Institute for Historical Research – article
  • from the University of London Research Library Services – article
  • Archival Research Techniques and Skills – student portal
  • University of Nottingham: Document Skills – Introduction

A few notes:

  1. Plan ahead.
    • Many archives are not open full time and have very limited space for researchers; it may take some time for the archivist to answer your enquiry, or to get a seat, so plan your visit in advance.
    • Make sure you need to see the original material (see below), and if you do, that you are as prepared as possible.
  2. Do your secondary reading first, and find out which of your primary sources have been published, edited, calendared or indexed.
    • You will need that information in order to engage fully with the primary sources and make the most of your valuable research time.
    • Secondary sources often cite relevant primary sources and their locations.
    • Published sources may be available to you more easily and with less travel than original ones.
    • You will be better equipped to make enquiries of and ask for assistance from archivists and manuscript librarians.
    • The professionals you deal with will be able to tell whether or not you are well prepared, and you are likely to get more detailed responses if your enquiries are well informed. If it’s clear you haven’t read basic printed sources, they are quite likely to send you away to do that first. If you ask for primary sources which have been published, you will be given the published version.
  3. Use the online archive networks.
    • There is an ever-increasing amount of information online about archives, from general national databases to subject-specific portals. A few of the networks are listed here.
  4. Ask for help.
    • You are not expected to know everything about where to find primary sources. It’s more complicated and less systematic than identifying published sources, and archivists and curators are specialists in this kind of lateral thinking. (But do your homework first!)

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