– 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.

guest post – OUIP microinternship HT16

(Anna): Claire has been working with me at St Cross this week on a 9th week placement arranged through OUIP’s microinternship scheme, photographing medieval manuscripts and posting the images online in response to researchers’ requests. It’s been a pleasure to work with her, and the fruits of her efficient labours can be viewed on Flickr (see MSS 246, 276 and 63). Here’s her account of the week:

‘I spent a very long time dredging through the internship website before I found Balliol’s advert in the middle of a sea of law and consultancy firms. I wasn’t aware then of Balliol’s collection of manuscripts but it immediately appealed – I had been doing work indexing photo albums for my own college, Univ, and this seemed like a chance to (literally) get my hands on even older books. Just that week my tutor for Latin reading classes had spent twenty minutes of our one-hour class talking about about our debt as Classicists to the manuscripts which preserved the Latin texts we were reading. With this in mind, I then went online to have a look at Balliol’s archives and found a huge catalogue of these kind of resources. I was surprised as I assumed most of their work would be behind some kind of paywall, or that you would have to contact the archivist to access it, yet it was all freely available. This sealed it; it’s a personal gripe of mine that so much academic material is unavailable to those without money or influence, and thus I do feel that was Balliol is doing is making important resources available in a very fair and egalitarian way. And so I applied, and, despite having no experience save helping out the Univ archivist, got the internship. Now I’m very glad I did, and not just because it made one member of my Latin class very jealous.


Oxford, Balliol College MS278-f214va

‘When I first started the internship, my feelings were mainly dominated by fear and intimidation at handling such old and valuable manuscripts; the very first one I photographed was 14th century so it really was a matter of going straight in. One of the first things I learnt was how to handle the books correctly, Anna’s advice was to hold them as you would an animal, supporting all the limbs and particularly the spine. On the basis of this, I’ve spent the last five days treating the books like very delicate and elderly rottweilers. For my first two manuscripts, the style of writing was such that I couldn’t recognise many of the letters used, let alone words. I think I only recognised ‘quidam’ and ‘nec’ in the whole first three days. However, when I moved onto a manuscript from the 12th century, a breakthrough happened where I actually began to recognise the majority of the words. Alas, the vocab may be there but after only two terms of learning Latin, somehow I wasn’t quite at the stage of reading Bede fluently. I learnt while here how different classical Latin is from medieval and later forms of Latin, and for now I think I’ll stick to Cicero. Something which was both unexpected and wonderful about the manuscripts I worked with was the amount of marginalia I found; particularly entertaining were the little faces drawn as to come out of the text, and particularly spooky was the hooded figure drawn in pointing at a section of text.


Oxford, Balliol College MS 278-f094rb

‘As well as photographing the manuscripts and putting them online, on Thursday morning I was given the chance to visit the archives in New College. The majority of the archive is kept inside the Muniment Tower there, and going up a very long spiral staircase inside a stone tower to see them felt very authentic. From visiting another college I think I’ve learnt about how different archives can be, but how many of the problems archivists face in maintaining them and keeping them accesible are the same. One highlight of the visit was seeing 16th and 17th documents inside their original boxes and bags, a strong recommendation of their box-making and storage methods. What I found beautiful about the archives was how much of the history of the archive itself had been preserved; many documents were kept in huge sets of drawers or chests from much earlier in history, and the rooms themselves still had the original tiled flooring.

‘Working at the archives has been a wonderful experience; I feel like I’ve gained far more knowledge about both this archive and how archives work in general, and also that I’ve made some contribution to the project of making Balliol’s extensive collection of manuscripts more accessible to the scholars who need them.’

aIMG_20160317_124508491from a visit to New College’s archives


– Claire Heseltine

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