– 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.

finding primary sources – worked example

Q: I’m looking for archival material in Oxford – and maybe elsewhere – relating to [well known deceased literary figure(s)].

A: LMGTFY – almost.

The first answer is always, of course, do an internet search – try ‘oxford surname’ and see what comes up. If nothing obvious, try adding ‘archives’, ‘papers’ or ‘letters’.

Balliol College’s personal and family archives holdings are listed online, with links to images, at http://archives.balliol.ox.ac.uk/Modern%20Papers/modernmsssum.asp.

Biographies and other secondary material should mention the whereabouts of other primary sources; from the archives end though, you will want to be familiar with several national portals, as e.g. letters from your research subjects will turn up in the archives of correspondents’ archives, not their own.

  • The National Archives Discovery catalogue now includes the former National Register of Archives and A2A entries, for UK archives outside TNA: http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ (use Advanced, then Record Creator tab)
  • The Archives Hub, for archives/personal papers/collections in (mostly) UK HE institutions: https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/
  • The Location Register of Modern English Literary Manuscripts & Letters at Reading University: http://www.locationregister.com/
  • AIM25, for archives/personal papers/collections in (mostly) Greater London repositories: https://aim25.com/
  • JANUS, for archives/personal papers/collections in Cambridge college and university repositories: https://janus.lib.cam.ac.uk/
  • If your research subject has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, there will be sections for Sources (i.e. secondary works) and Archives – these are often a handy shortcut to get started with, though don’t assume they are infallibly complete. The ODNB is accessed by subscription, but many HE institutions and UK public libraries provide access.
When you have done all these things, check with the Oxford archivists via the OAC address: https://oac.web.ox.ac.uk/ – be sure to mention the sources you have already checked and the archives you have located, otherwise we will helpfully suggest them to you again!

Does all this sound obvious? good – but this is a genuine enquiry from a genuine researcher of the internet generation, and it’s far from unique.

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