– 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.

conference notes

On Friday I was able to attend the final day of the CILIP RBSCG (Rare Books & Special Collections Group) annual conference at the British Library (4 Sept 2015). Here are my very brief notes of and thoughts prompted by six excellent papers that gave an excellent variety of subjects, issues and solutions, but were very much related under the conference theme of ‘Hidden Collections: Revealed’…

… and here is Joanna Baines’ blog post, from someone who was able to attend the whole conference and had more of an overview of the theme’s development over the three days.

Paper 1 Adrian Edwards on the BL’s collection of comics and the Comics Unmasked exhibition

  • exhibitions can and should be used to stimulate cataloguing priorities and research investigation, awareness, public engagement. eg c19 poets recently for us
  • helps leverage management support and resources for eg cataloguing, conservation, digitisation etc
  • importance of online afterlife of exhibitions
  • increased staff knowledge of collection, either by regular cataloguing staff or via shared knowledge from external/specialist cataloguer
  • every exhibition’s potential and impact is individual and the same formulae can’t always be applied – apply everything and see what works!
  • the BL’s Comics Unmasked exhibition (past)
  • more from the collection

Paper 2 Lara Haggerty on Inverpeffray Library

  • they have C18 borrowing registers! what a lovely record (see Matthew’s recent posts here about Balliol’s borrowing registers)
  • the Library was described ca 1930 as ‘a quaint corner in Libraria’ – it’s much more than that of course, but I do like the phrase!
  • I also like the work placement PhD model they are using – research student gets experience on both sides of the desk.
  • it is both difficult and necessary to have the door at St Cross locked most of the time, without impromptu public access. We are doing more every year to improve general public tourist access (research access by appointment in advance is always available to anyone) and there are always more ideas to try.
  • Inverpeffray Library – go visit!
  • Alexander McCall Smith’s Love Letter to Inverpeffray Library and the whole Love Letters to Libraries series in the Guardian

Paper 3 Katie Sambrooke on the FCO collection, now at King’s College London

  • The Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s library, consisting of 100,000 items, moved to KCL Library in 2007 and is now their largest and most used special collection!
  • Balliol note, mention of Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps
  • in later years, an important question was: who in the FCO used the collection? due to increasing security, it was very difficult for any external readers to gain access at all
  • cataloguing the collection: used project staff, internal and external funding, high level of detail, DCRMB standard, lots of subject headings to add search/discovery via online catalogue
  • cataloguers became experts in the collection, ideal for enquiries answering, outreach, exhibitions, talks, internal education of other staff
  • I noted contrast with archival cataloguing, which is NOT ‘necessary but mundane’, it’s essential and substantively different
  • a lesson for all of us who try to advertise via so many channels for exhibitions and talks etc etc: KCL’s exhibition footfall is 90% passing trade, that is, just happened to see the poster on the door
  • personal contacts are a key source of exhibition ideas and curators, particularly tutors with an imaginative approach to collections. KCL English staff get special mention!
  • for all the outreach targets, the primary audience for HE institutions is ACADEMIC – using special collections for the institution’s own research and teaching
  • KCL survey shows that their own current students prefer email contact and NOT social media on library matters!
  • KCL’s practice will be one to watch for improving visibility of special collections in the main library on a separate site although they are stored & consulted on a separate site – good example for us here. Examples: include special collections in fresher & new staff inductions, make a video, private view, advertise from freshers week
  • users and uses of collections are always different from what might be expected, using different things in different ways. And the expected users will challenge all the expectations!
  • interesting KCL MA module ‘exploring the Victorian archive’
  • from question about social media: use all media to reach different audiences – just have to do them all and keep trying. There is nothing that doesn’t work! though some may be better value or better use of time than others.
  • KCL Special Collections
  • FCO collection

Paper 4 Katharine Hogg on the Gerald Coke Handel Collection at the Foundling Museum

  • close collection connection with Handel House Museum
  • Coke collection requires ‘extreme cataloguing’ ie highly detailed
  • Balliol reference: Charles Jennens letters (Jennens was a key librettist for Handel – Messiah and many others)
  • most users of this collection connect remotely rather than consulting the collection in person, digital images supplied and created on demand
  • demand-led digitisation for budget and server space reasons.
  • more active partnering with academic teaching!

Paper 5 Hannah Manktelow on Provincial Shakespeare performances in the BL’s Playbills collection

  • BL playbill collection .25 mil! 70% London based but still 75000 for provincial study
  • good introduction – setting out preconceptions, initial questions, expectations, what hoped to find
  • portable theatres were literally ephemeral – ‘no one treasured their playbill from the portable theatre’. but Shakespeare certainly was performed in small towns and for working class audiences by travelling/seasonal theatres with visiting London stars!
  • Sarah Siddons played Hamlet! only in provincial theatres 1780s. Provincial theatres had children playing Shakespeare central roles eg 6yo Macbeth (‘the Infant Kean’). ‘Women and children play damaged men, not heroes’. And not in London.
  • So many stories waiting to be told in the playbill collection. Look for BBC stories on this within the year.

Paper 6 Mark Byford on opening a private collection to others

  • ‘tiptoeing into a hidden collection’ 
  • ‘rare books exercise a grip on the imagination’
  • can collect by period, subject, author, publisher, illustrations, bindings, annotations…
  • ‘a menagerie of books’ – open up to subject specialists
  • why might you collect books you don’t understand? partly from necessity as they are scarce and expensive and finds are necessarily serendipitous rather than systematic, but approach also sympathetic to C17 breadth of  tastes/interests in publishing and personal collecting
  • lots of opportunity to engage different scholars, but how to share the understanding and meaning with others?
  • Tiffany Stern article on David Garrick’s personal lending library – he didn’t read much! personal binding, book plate
  • the statement ‘There is no catalogue’ of this collection brought a collective intake of breath from the assembled librarians…
  • visits from and loans to specific scholars, uses own books for seminars with students
  • the assertion that ‘collectors probably know their books better than many librarians’ was also much noticed in the room and on Twitter! need to exploit this knowledge effectively for research connections
  • favourite quote: ‘You’re taught not to write in books, yet I’m thrilled that people did. As long as it was about 300 years ago!’

Other things to look up

We then had a detailed tour by Alison Bailey of the Animal Tales exhibition in the Entrance Hall Gallery (formerly Folio Society Gallery). Lovely design! Highlights that made me want to turn the pages:

  • Robert Southey’s copy of Gilbert White’s Selborne (Balliol reference)
  • David Garnett A Man in the Zoo and Lady into Fox – if you’ve been watching Life in Squares, this is Bunny
  • beautiful big embossed hardback edition of Laline Paull’s The Bees
  • Varjak Paw, written by SF Said, illustrated by Dave McKean
  • Anansi Company, poetry by Roy Fisher, extraordinary puppet-artwork by Ronald King

We were then taken beyond several layers of security into the stacks. I was very excited (I know…) to see the fabled BL red tray delivery track at last – if I worked there I would be sorely tempted to put a train on it.

We saw David Garrick’s  drama collection with its fancy matching bindings and personalised bookplates – he lent books and was very keen they should come back to him.

Much of the repository is of course electronic rolling stack, and I was reminded of York Minster Archives’ simple method of preventing one member of staff from unwittingly squashing another down the very long runs of shelving (only three, but very long): a cardboard box neatly covered in a red plastic bag had to be placed on the floor at the mouth of the open run is anyone was down there, and removed when the run was vacated. It worked!

The sight of cut up marked sale catalogues from auction houses, printed catalogue pages pasted into a larger ledger, with manuscript accounts & notes throughout surrounding the printed material, showed, I thought, a fine example of far-from-unique printed material becoming something rather different, an archival record.

Biggest Ever Scandinavian linguistics collection made me very happy: ‘The Hannås Collection of Scandinavian Linguistic Literature was donated to the Library in 1984 by Torgrim Hannås, a Norwegian-born antiquarian bookseller living in Britain. The collection includes some 710 items, in all the Scandinavian languages, of which about three quarters date from before 1851. Just over half of the collection consists of dictionaries, the rest being divided between textbooks, readers, phrase books etc and linguistic monographs.’ ( description from the BL website)

Another Balliol note to end: we saw John Evelyn’s personal library next to editions of Lawrence Durrell. Ah, shelfmarks!

Thanks so much to RBSCG organisers and committee and British Library hosts for a brilliant day!

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