– 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.

What Balliol people read between 1677 and 1712

A guest post by Matthew Main (New College, 2012), our first OUIP (Oxford University Internship Programme) intern  of summer 2015.

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In the archives of Balliol Library there are two Folio ledgers, with dimensions suited for the task of recording tall columns of accounts. Alongside Bursar’s accounts and a partial early Library catalogue, they contain fragments of a lending register from the main College Library, chronicling intermittent periods between roughly 1677 and 1712.  The register consists of a total of 565 entries, including some that are illegible or too vague to be identified. As part of my role as an intern at Balliol Library in the summer of 2015, I transcribed the lending register, before converting it into a searchable database for researchers interested in libraries and their usage in this period.

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Use of the register was haphazard. A considerable portion of the entries remain unidentified, for various reasons; some are scored out, presumably upon the book’s return to the Library, while others are no more than an abbreviated scribble or a faded pencil mark. There appears to have been no agreed conventions for entering a record; one or more of the date, book, author, shelf mark and even borrower name may be missing from any given record. This made compiling a useful set of data a challenging task, but not an insurmountable one; I identified most books through a process of elimination and by consulting old Library catalogues.

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It is difficult to say exactly how much the register can tell us about the historical intellectual community at Balliol. Officially, the Library was for Fellows of the College, although the register occasionally records instances where undergraduates and external visitors were apparently granted special dispensation to borrow from the collections. In Balliol College: A History, John Jones remarks that if one takes the register to be a picture of the College’s scholarship, ‘the impression is left  . . . of a dilettante approach, lacking in concentrated effort or application’, an impression borne out by the dearth of meaningful academic work produced by the contemporary set of Fellows. This should not, however, put us off investigating the way that Fellows interacted on the page, and the entries offer an insight into the type of texts most commonly read in the wider period, as well as the specific, changing Balliol environment. After the Civil War, Balliol had been placed under the administration of the Bishop of Lincoln in an attempt to remedy its ailing financial health. The Fellows and successive Masters were engaged in raising funds in order to pay down accumulating College debts, many originating from years of unpaid battels, and a charitable explanation for the lack of academic output in the period might be that attentions were primarily focused elsewhere.

Close ins8QK4nF2pection of the register reveals plenty of instances where a community of readers appear to recommend certain works to one another, suggestive of interaction between scholars. The College subscribed to Philosophical Transactions and the rival journal Acta eruditorum, and Fellows perused both frequently. Plenty of books were seemingly passed around, some of them more obscure; five different people are recorded as having borrowed mostly forgotten French writer Louis Ellies du Pin’s 13-volume History of Ecclesiastical Writers (1692–1699). Mathematics and theology were generally the dominant subjects, and as Jones reminds us, these were the only fields in which anything of note was published out of Balliol between 1675 and 1725. The nature of progress in both fields is somewhat cumulative, and existing work is often superseded rather than lasting on in our cultural imagination, which means that many of the mathematicians and theologians studied at the time are not household names today. Thus the lending register allows us to recover the names of people who shaped the discourse of their respective subjects but might otherwise have been forgotten. It might be tempting for us to think of the 17th century as the era of Paradise Lost, but if Balliol possessed a copy of the poem – and catalogue records suggest that it did – then the lending register suggests that it did not appeal to any of the Fellows at the time. The register offers a rare insight into what was actually read in the College, not simply owned or bought, and might force us to modify our understanding of what readers considered to be important.

Matthew uses the portable book cradle borrowed from the Oxford Conservation Consortium to photograph early Library records at St Cross church.

Matthew uses the portable book cradle borrowed from the Oxford Conservation Consortium to photograph early College Library records at St Cross church.

During my time at Balliol I was privileged to borrow from the expertise of the archivist, Anna Sander, and the librarians, Naomi Tiley, Fiona Godber, and Rachel McDonald, all of whose guidance has been invaluable. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to gain research and professional experience and the funding that has made that possible. I hope my work can play some small part in opening up this manuscript for further study by experts in this field.

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– Thanks to Matthew’s research project, new digital images of three important archival sources for the history of Balliol College Library are now online:

Oxford, Balliol College Archives, Library Records:

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