– 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 St Cross Church and Balliol’s special collections

I am often asked about the status of St Cross as a church, and about how members of Balliol College, the University of Oxford and the wider community can get access to the building and the collections housed in it. Here is a collection of those questions and answers.

Q: I walked past St Cross church yesterday and tried the door. It was locked. Churches should be open! Why isn’t St Cross open?

A: St Cross is no longer a parish church. It was decommissioned in 2008. In latter years at least, the door to St Cross was usually locked even while it was a parish church – visitors could borrow the key from the lodge at Holywell Manor, next door.

St Cross’ door is normally locked because it is now part of Balliol College’s library. Many people come by the church every day, and a good number try the door handle. It would be very disruptive to staff and researchers to have visitors walking in and out of a library reading room – and extremely draughty!

Q: So St Cross has been deconsecrated?

A: It has not been deconsecrated; the chancel and sanctuary furniture and arrangement are as they were. The font has been moved (with all the required permission of course) to the north side of the chancel step, under the Freeling memorial. The chancel is now a chapel of ease to the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, and occasional services are celebrated in the chancel by St Mary’s clergy or the Balliol chaplain.

If anyone can provide a link to a good clear explanation between the terms closed, redundant, decommissioned and deconsecrated regarding churches, please leave a comment below!

Q: Can I come to St Cross to see the historic parish records? Or records of burials in Holywell Cemetery?

A: All of St Cross’ parish records have been deposited and can be consulted by appointment at the Oxfordshire History Centre  on Cowley Road; this is the repository for parish records in the Oxford diocese. Holywell Cemetery records are also there. Balliol does not have copies of these records at St Cross.

Q: St Cross is part of Balliol now, and hey, it has wifi! Why can’t members of Balliol come in when they want with their swipe cards, the way they can in other parts of the college? And if it’s part of the college library, can Balliol students use it as a reading room?

A: Several reasons – first, you try getting permission to mount swipe card or security tag kit on a grade I listed building! Second, those using the special collections have priority in this building, because they cannot consult copies anywhere else – there aren’t any. Then too, for obvious preservation reasons (bearing in mind that everything we have here is unique and irreplaceable, and it is all old and fragile, or will be one day) any special collections reading room has considerably stricter regulations than the college library does: food, water, gum and sweets are not permitted. Neither are outdoor coats or any bags at the table. Neither are pens – pencil only. [further details here and here]

All that said, of course students can come in and use any of the collections here for research. Making an appointment is pretty easy – it just requires a little forward planning. Aside from curriculum-related research, there are numerous opportunities for current and past members to visit St Cross and see the collections during special events throughout the year. (Students can request and help to plan said events, too!)

Q: It’s sad to see empty churches. I suppose St Cross is always empty now that it is not a parish church?

A: The building is definitely not standing empty these days! Balliol’s Special Collections Centre at St Cross is usually staffed Monday-Friday, and there are researchers using the collections here on most weekdays, as well as tour groups and individual visitors. All visitors need to make appointments except for advertised public open days, which are held on weekdays and at weekends. More than 1000 people visited St Cross in 2012.

Q: I suppose only members of Balliol can use the building now. Can’t the public get into St Cross church at all anymore?

A: Although it is now leased, maintained and occupied by Balliol College, St Cross has not been made permanently inaccessible to the general public. Anyone who is interested can make an appointment to tour the building, and anyone with a bona fide research question can make an appointment to consult Balliol’s special collections here. [contact]

The church is open to the public – in the sense of the door being open – at least once a month, for open days, public lectures, exhibitions and services. Please contact staff for the next dates. [contact]

Q: Why all this need for appointments? I’d rather just be able to turn up when I want.

A: Some larger (e.g. county) archive services are able to accommodate visitors without appointments, but most archives and special collections libraries with few staff require appointments, and even if they are not required, you are likely to get a better service if you arrange your visit in advance. There are several reasons why appointments are necessary for all visitors; the intention is to accommodate as many visitors as possible as well as possible, not to keep them away.

– St Cross is a busy place these days, and we need to make sure that users can all make the most of their visits – for instance, we tend to avoid scheduling tour groups on days when individual researchers will be working, and vice versa.

– The number of researchers who can be accommodated on any one day is fairly small, restricted by the space available; by arranging your visit in advance, you will be sure of a seat and can plan your time.

– Staff need to be able to plan their work schedules, and may need to arrange ahead of time for extra invigilation cover for researchers.

– There are times when the Centre is closed or can only provide support for internal College enquiries.

– Visitors often come from far away, and we need to make sure they – you – are able to make the most of their, or your, limited time at St Cross.

– If you are making a visit for research, pre-ordered items will be ready for you when you arrive, maximising your research time. In addition, staff will be able to advise you on other relevant collections, provide finding aids in advance in most cases, and notify you of any materials which are not available for consultation.

Many things have changed at St Cross over the last several years – we hope that most of them have changed for the better!

not least the state of the building itself – must post some new photos of the interior, restored and in use. Coming soon!

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