– 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.

Open Doors 2016 Q&A

Your questions from the weekend, answered:

Q: Where are the medieval manuscripts?

A: (We get this question every time St Cross is open, no matter what else is on display.) Balliol’s medieval manuscripts, like all the other archive and manuscript material, is kept inside the repositories in the aisles. But the question is really, are they on display right now and can I see them, and the answer is, yes, but only one at the moment. This term’s exhibition features Hebraica and Judaica from across the college’s collections, including a spectacular 15th codex in Hebrew, produced in Portugal.

There seems to be some feeling that the college really should be displaying more of its medieval manuscripts more of the time, that it has some obligation to do so. Well, I agree, but the college’s first obligation is to preserve the manuscripts, i.e. not to expose them to any further damage than they have already incurred through accident, misuse, fire, flood, pests etc through their sometimes 10 centuries of existence. And it’s not possible for St Cross to be open to the public all the time. One way we make LOTS of our manuscripts more accessible is through creating and sharing good digital images online, publicly, for free. That’s not the same as seeing the manuscripts in person, but remember they are *extremely* old and fragile, and the best conservators in the world (and we have them!) can’t change that.


That said, September 2017’s exhibition in St Cross is going to be ALL ABOUT MEDIEVAL MANUSCRIPTS, so be sure to come to that.

Q: Does Balliol have resources about its members who served/fell in WW1?

A: Yes. More. And here.


Oxford, Balliol College Archives, FF Urquhart Album 7.43D

Q: What’s the relationship between the Bodleian libraries and the colleges’ libraries and special collections?

A: The Bodleian is the collective shorthand for the University of Oxford’s libraries: the central library, departmental/faculty libraries, and a number of specialist libraries. Like any university library, they exist to serve current members of the university first, and also other researchers. College libraries don’t have an equivalent at most other universities; they exist primarily to serve current members of that college only. However, college libraries’ holdings of modern and in many cases rare/early/special collections printed books are on the University’s union catalogue, SOLO, and may be consulted (normally by appointment) by non-members of that college.

Archives and manuscripts are DIFFERENT from (especially modern) printed book collections in many ways. They are held, owned and looked after by various University libraries and by college libraries, separately. SOLO does not include archival or manuscript material from any university or college collections and there is no union catalogue of university or college archives or manuscripts. Colleges may have: their own historic administrative documents (‘the college archives’), personal papers of individual former heads of house, Fellows and sometimes students (‘modern personal papers’, ‘personal archives’ etc) and medieval manuscript books, which may be books from the college’s own medieval library, later acquisitions, or both. College archives and manuscripts may be looked after by the archivist or the librarian in different combinations – it varies from college to college. Some colleges have deposited their medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian for safekeeping and ease of access by researchers.

Archives and manuscripts in any library or archive are non-borrowable – you have to go to them (this is also true of early and rare printed books and other special collections). Researchers normally have to register with the institution and will be invigilated while using the material. Reading room regulations are generally stricter than those of ordinary university library reading rooms.

This all sounds very restrictive, and it is, because the material is mostly original, unique and irreplaceable. In many instances it is also very old and fragile, and requires training in how to handle it safely – never mind how to read or understand it! HOWEVER, there is a flip side to all this restrictiveness: archives and manuscripts in college collections are open to researchers from across the university and indeed to the general public – which is not generally true of their modern printed books. This is of course because – again, generally speaking – there are no copies of unique original material elsewhere. Researchers will need to apply in advance and make an appointment to see such material, and will need to present a bona fide research question to gain access, though an academic or other institutional affiliation is not essential.

There is no one place to find all this material, or to find descriptions of it. Archival arrangement and description is very different from regular printed book cataloguing – it has some aspects in common with early/rare printed books cataloguing – and is very time-consuming. It is not straightforward for researchers to find out what’s where – it will require some work, and also asking archivists and librarians for help. Small amounts of some collections have been digitized – this may or may not be useful, but in general there is MUCH more information available off the internet than on it. Some finding aids for colleges’ archives and manuscripts (or just start with a general search engine):

Q: Does Balliol hold many scientists’ archives?

A: No – scientists’ archives are often part of an ongoing research continuum, so they are not always deposited in a body in the same way as, say, a politician’s or poet’s personal papers. Scientists’ papers which are deposited as archival fonds often go to specialist repositories, such as Oxford’s Natural History Museum, the Edward Grey Institute for Field Ornithology, or the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge.

Q: I suppose Open Doors is the only time in the year that St Cross church is open to the public?

A: No. It is also open for a similar weekend in the spring, and for advertised exhibition opening hours and other events throughout the year. Anyone can make an appointment to visit the building. The church can also be used for occasional services, at the discretion of and arranged through the clergy of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, in the High Street. More details about public opening and how the building is used.

Q: Was Dame Stephanie Shirley involved in funding the St Cross building project?

A: Yes. More details

Q: How old is St Cross church?

A: That depends. The chancel arch is Norman (about 1100); there is no archaeological evidence among the foundations for any earlier building. Most of the building you see now is Victorian (C19). Here’s a fuller answer.

Copy of DSCN9609

Q: What’s the relationship of the churchyard next to the church, and the cemetery behind it, to St Cross church?

A: answered here

Q: Where is the sundial?

A: On the outside of the church,  on the south side of the tower. You can see it from the street as you approach from the south (i.e. from town); it’s blue. To the left of the south door of the church (on the side, in the churchyard) is a brass plaque about the sundial. Step back as far as possible from the plaque and look straight up to see the sundial.


Q: Is this the university cemetery?

A: No. There is no ‘university cemetery’ in Oxford. Most of the city’s churchyards and cemeteries have lots of headstones commemorating former members of the University.

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