– 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.

old books, new year


An important new project has started at St Cross: the conservators at OCC just down the road are undertaking a full condition survey of Balliol’s medieval books. This is not about adding to Mynors’ or others’ catalogue descriptions of the books or their texts, but rather it’s the first survey of the mss’ physical condition in modern times. Through similar projects for several other Oxford college collections, OCC has developed a comprehensive template for noting practically anything that can go wrong with a book, from binding details and ink or pigment corrosion to old repairs or infestations. By comparing this with reader and enquirer data plus teaching/exhibition requirements we will be able to determine conservation treatment priorities for years to come. Some of the manuscripts may not be in a safe condition to produce without conservation repairs, so the survey will also make it possible to alert potential researchers of any such temporary access restrictions further in advance. We expect the survey to occupy an average of half a day per week of a conservator’s time for much of this calendar year

Above, a conservator examines the main text and several marginal inscriptions of different later dates to check for flaking ink or pigments. At the same time she is giving a master class about her observations to library staff and a visiting UCL LIS student.

Update mid-February 2014: We have already completed nearly 10% of the survey. For the most part, the archivist and library staff are taking it in turns to carry out data entry (into a sortable, searchable database version of the conservators’ detailed and comprehensive survey template) while a conservator examines and comments on each manuscript. This speeds up the process considerably and maximizes the conservators’ valuable time for MS examination rather than paperwork. Meanwhile all concerned are learning huge amounts about medieval manuscript structure and production, the (often painful) history of book repair or ‘repair’, the particular features of Balliol’s individual manuscripts and the relationships between and among groups of books in the collection as a whole. We will be posting some photos of weird and wonderful features we find!

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