– 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.

Access to St Cross – MCR FAQ

Q: Where is St Cross?

A: It’s the church-shaped building next door to Holywell Manor.

Q: I live next door and I’ve never been in St Cross. Why is the door always locked? Shouldn’t church doors be open?

A: Ideally they should, but St Cross is no longer a parish church. It’s in use full time as Balliol’s special collections centre. For the security of the collections and staff working there, there is no access ‘off the street’ or out of staffed hours – you need to make an appointment and staff will meet you when you arrive. Much of the time there are researchers in the nave, which is used as the invigilated reading room –  tourists do not have access to the Broad Street Library for the same reason.

Q: So when can I see the inside of the building?

A: Just send the archivist an email and make an appointment for some mutually convenient time during working hours, Mon-Fri 9.30-5 except daily 1-2 and Friday afternoons. Well, it’s not ‘at the archivist’s convenience’, it’s about accommodating all the different kinds of users of the building considerately, including you and including the archivist who has a full day’s work to get done in addition to helping all kinds of visitors. Group visits are welcome.  There will be an MCR special collections private viewing event during the year, too, and MCR members will be encouraged to request items for display.

Q: Give us a sneak preview. What does it look like inside?

A: https://www.flickr.com/photos/balliolarchivist/collections/72157625216840610/

Q: I want to drop by informally, for a few minutes or a good browse, as I’m passing by, and after all I’m a member of the college. Can’t you make an exception to the appointments rule for once?

A: If I had a nickel for every time I’m asked that! Several times *a day*. Please save your friendly college archivist the embarrassment of having to say no yet again, and instead request an appointment, to which the answer will always be yes, even if your first choice of time isn’t possible. If you attempt to drop by, there may be a manuscripts seminar, a lecture or a school visit in progress, or staff may be in Broad Street or working inside a repository and not hear the door buzzer.

Q: I’m curious about the collections. How can I find out more, and can I ask to see an original manuscript purely for interest?

A: Normally you need a research question to access manuscript material, but yes, college membership does give you some extra-privileged access.  Please get in touch to start a conversation with staff about your interests, and we will do your best to accommodate your request. (Really.) There is lots of information about the many special collections held at St Cross here: http://archives.balliol.ox.ac.uk/ and there are regular exhibitions and college events including special collections material.

Q: College libraries are normally for the use of members of college only. Who gets to use the special collections?

A: Anyone, including members of the general public, with a valid research question requiring direct access to Balliol’s special collections. While the door to St Cross cannot be wide open most of the time, Balliol’s special collections are considerably wider open than the college’s working collection in the Broad Street library. This is because most of the special collections – certainly manuscripts and in many cases early printed books as well – are unique or have copy-specific features that make them effectively unique.

Q: This all sounds too complicated and time-consuming. Why don’t you just Digitise All The Things?

A: PLEASE come to one of our ‘introduction to special collections’ sessions, coming soon! Watch this space, website and social media for dates.

Q: If you’re asked for access so often, shouldn’t you be open to students and/or a wider public more often?

A: Ideally, but it’s a lot of extra work and time for a small and busy staff team, and the building’s core functions – research and teaching based on the special collections – are taking up more time at St Cross, which is a good thing. There are often open periods, displays, lectures and tours at St Cross as part of college events. 850 people came for the public Oxford Open Doors days in September 2014. We are planning to have a public open day in spring as well, from 2015. And members of college (and indeed anyone) can always *make an appointment*.

Q: I don’t mind making an appointment. So can I use St Cross as a regular reading space/alternative to the Broad Street library or my department library?

A: Sorry, not unless you are working on special collections or non-borrowable library material housed there. There are ever-increasing numbers of researchers, special collections-based seminar groups from across Oxford and school access/outreach groups using the space.

It’s a very attractive space, but there are a few extra considerations that set it apart from the usual library reading room. Standard practice in special collections reading rooms anywhere indicates that ink, food and drink including water, gum, sweets, erasers and having your bag at the table are not permitted for readers or staff. Access for any readers is only possible during staffed hours, and that means that the building is closed and locked at lunchtime, evenings and weekends, and no, we can’t lock you in. There are few reader spaces at a time – special collections researchers often need assistance from staff throughout their working day, and each needs a whole table to ensure that they have enough room for manuscripts, book supports, laptops, reference books, notebooks… so manuscripts don’t get crowded and fall on the floor. And it’s really quite cold in St Cross for about half the year – it’s a draughty old building and heating systems have only limited effect. But if you have a special reason for wanting to work in St Cross, please do get in touch. Other questions? Need more detail? Contact staff.

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