– 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.

Author Archive

antechapel display – Remembrance Sunday 2017

A century ago: extracts from a few pages of Francis Fortescue (‘Sligger’) Urquhart’s personal photo albums, covering the Summer Term of 1917.

There were still Balliol men coming into residence each year during the War: surprising as it may seem now some were overseas students; others were precluded from active service, e.g. Aldous Huxley; most were putting in time before their commissions came through, and the student numbers by the end of each summer term were much lower than in Michaelmas. In addition, the officer cadets billeted at Balliol, Keble and elsewhere for training were welcomed and made to feel part of ‘their’ colleges by the few Fellows still resident.

Urquhart was one of only three dons in residence at Balliol throughout the War, and his unbroken series of informal photographs shows the incongruous juxtapositions of academic, civilian and military life during the period. This post shows a selection reflecting the outward and visible changes made by the war in Oxford, mainly within Balliol.

Many of the officer cadets who spent weeks or months training in Oxford had good memories of their time there. This lighter side of wartime experience easily became family stories that could be passed down. My enquiry records show that some officer training periods have evolved in family legend into full Oxford degrees, several generations of retelling later! The ‘party of sight-seers’ in one photo is visiting New College’s cloisters – is Urquhart acting as their tour guide? Even the pictures of ‘trench digging on Cumnor Hill by 6 OCB A Company’, in their shirtsleeves under a bright Oxfordshire sun and the beady eye of Captain Lang, look worlds removed from the reality, fast approaching for these men, of the mud of Flanders and France.

Individually, the photos are mostly sunny snapshots of happy moments; as a collection, however, the very quality of ‘Oxford idyll’ that seems escapist and almost irresponsible in such a serious time forms not only a fascinating glimpse into an important chapter in Oxford’s history, but a vivid and very personal memorial to lost youth and potential, compiled by a tutor noting the deaths of too many friends and former students.

FFU07-50-H1

3 views of John Beverley Nichols. JBN was admitted to Balliol, with Urquhart as his tutor, in Hilary Term (spring term, i.e. January) 1917, and almost immediately entered the Army as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Labour Corps. These photos, only a page apart in the album, show his rapid transition from civilian to military life. Nichols detested everything about the war and his military experience, and was deeply bitter about his father’s curtailment of his Oxford education once the war was over. Nichols does not mention his brief 1917 Oxford period in his memoir The Unforgiving Minute, which indicates that he went straight from Marlborough College to officer training in Cambridge. Balliol Archives FFU 7.50H, 7.52F, 7.52G.

FFU07-50-I

‘A party of sight-seers, March 1917’ – a group of officer cadets and their training officers in the cloisters at New College. Balliol Archives FFU 7.50I

FFU07-52-A1

‘Malik, French Red Cross, Summer term 1917.’ Hardit Singh Malik was one of four Sikh pilots in the RFC/RAF), and the only one of the four to survive. Francis Urquhart had been his Balliol tutor, and it was through him that Malik joined the French Red Cross in 1916 – as a stepping stone to the French Air Force, as at that time the new Royal Flying Corps did not accept non-white officers. In 1917 that colour bar was broken, again through Urquhart’s intervention, and Hardit Singh Malik became a pilot in the RFC, later the RAF. This photo may date from a visit a little earlier in the year, just before Malik’s transfer. Balliol Archives FFU 7.52A

1FFU07-52-C

Academic and military lives collide: Victor Mallet (Balliol 1911) studied Modern History at Balliol under NS Talbot and AL Smith, signed up with the Cambridge Regiment in September 1914 and served in France 1915-16. He is shown here on leave (or perhaps on business?) from Ireland in 1917 receiving his degree in BA gown and hood, with Army uniform, complete with cane, instead of subfusc and mortarboard. The Mallet family’s archive is held in Balliol’s Historic Collections Centre. Balliol Archives FFU 7.52C

FFU07-54-B1

At one point during the term Sligger visits the Cambridge home of Baron Anatole von Hügel (1854-1928) . Von Hügel, a fellow alumnus of Stonyhurst College, had set Urquhart something of an example when, in 1895, he had been a leading figure in the repeal of the Papal prohibition on Roman Catholic membership of Oxford and Cambridge. Balliol Archives FFU7.54B & C

FFU07-54-D

Nevile Barclay plays the organ in Balliol Hall. Barclay enlisted with the 8th London Regiment in May `915, aged 17, and worked in the Foreign Office until November 1918. He enrolled at Balliol in 1916 but his course was much interrupted by war work; he eventually completed his degree in 1921, but did not formally take the BA and MA until 1926. He and JB Nichols became friends during Nichols’ postwar stint in Oxford. Balliol Archives  FFU7.54D

The regular Sunday Concert series established  by Benjamin Jowett in 1885 continued well into the War, until June 1915, but was then replaced with less formal concerts for which there were no programmes. This coincides with the occupation of Balliol’s premises by No. 6 Officer Cadet Battalion; hundreds if not thousands of Army officer cadets came through Balliol on training courses lasting up to three months.

FFU07-54-I

‘W Robinson in hospital.’ There is no W Robinson of the right vintage at Balliol. Who is W Robinson? a member of another college? someone from the Roman Catholic schools? a former officer cadet stationed at Balliol for training? His dressing gown and slippers on the lawn are reminiscent of similar, yet very different, photos taken at Urquhart’s Chalet in the French alps only a few years earlier. And who took this photo? Urquhart usually notes photographers of individual prints other than himself  -though he does not mention whether they used his camera or their own – but from the shadow, whoever took this photo was in uniform. And which hospital is it? from the indications of a downhill slope in the background, I’ll guess it’s in Headington. Balliol Archives FFU 7.54I

FFU07-55-B

‘Trench digging on Cumnor Hill by 6 OCB, “A” Coy. Cap. Lang, Seiler, Velho, Sharp, Shaw, Evans, Darling.’ Urquhart has probably walked out to Cumnor, a regular walking destination of his, to visit the ‘Balliol’ cadets of 6 OCB practising – in what looks like very dry earth indeed – for the mud of France and Flanders. This is one of very few photographs indeed of officer cadets with identifications. Notice Velho’s khaki apron, carefully belted at the right length to protect his kilt. Balliol Archives FFU 7.55B

aFFU07-55-C

‘A Company Lecture’: instead of the usual scene of Balliol students taking a break from the Library or celebrating the end of their Finals, here an Army instructor addresses several dozen officer cadets sitting on the grass in front of the ivy-covered Hall in the Garden Quad. This photo appears to have been taken from the top of the Library tower. Balliol Archives FFU 7.55C

FFU07-55-K1

Maurice Leonard Jacks (Balliol 1912) had been a student of Cyril Bailey, in Classics, immediately before the war, and one of the early Presidents of the Balliol Boys’ Club. After serving as a 2nd Lieutenant (the most common rank for young University men signing up as junior officers) in the King’s Royal Rifles 1914-16, he was wounded in France in November 1916. As a result, he did not return to battle but became Captain of C Company, No.4 officer Cadet Battalion, based at Keble College in Oxford.  This meant he was just up the road from his old friend Urquhart, as well as close to the Jacks’ new family home at Shotover Edge. Jacks and Urquhart collaborated to provide cadets on their days off with walks and explorations by canoe of the surrounding countryside – experiences of Oxford summers in which, except for partial uniform, they could temporarily leave wartime behind. Balliol Archives FFU 7.55K

Balliol Archives FFU 7.57E

This album can be viewed in full online here.


antechapel display – winter Vacation 2017

A selection of images from the Michaelmas exhibition of medieval manuscripts at St Cross is now on public view in the antechapel in Broad Street:

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exhibition ending

Today I took down the medieval manuscripts exhibition. Thanks to all who visited! It went well – a report will appear in the new year, and of course blog posts etc will continue to appear, and will remain, here on the blog.

Dismantling an exhibition is not something that’s usually documented, perhaps because it’s such an anticlimax. But it’s a good task for the end of the year, leaving everything safely back in storage and the decks cleared for new adventures.


monthly report – November 2017

Some numbers about archives & manuscripts activity during November:

  • Number of enquiries: 59
  • Running total for 2017: 693
  • Number of researchers in person (unique users): 11
  • Number of person-days in the reading room: 16
  • Collections consulted: Morier, Jowett, AL Smith, Mallet, JL Strachan-Davidson (2), college records, medieval mss (3), David Urquhart, Francis Urquhart, Francis Oppenheimer
  • Productions (consulted by researchers in person or by the archivist in response to enquiries) – actual numbers may be slightly higher:
    • 17 boxes containing from two bound volumes to 4 thick files of individual items, not including
    • 16 files – up to 200 items per file, not including
    • 14  individual items from a single letter to a bound volume, not including
    • 51 medieval ms codices
  • No of non-research visitors:
  • images created: 800
  • events: with colleagues, staffed the College Archivists’ stand at the Graduate Thesis fair
  • exhibition open, with curator’s introduction, Q&A and discussion, for:
    • Balliol MCR (15)
    • tutor & students from Harris Manchester (15)
    • mentor & trainees from the Bodleian Conservation department (8)
    • tutor & students from Mansfield (4)
    • Dept of Education (4)
    • senior tutor & students from MCMRS (7)
    • tutor & students from Oxford MSt in Medieval Studies (13)
    • tutor & students from Balliol English (8)
    • OCC conservators (6)
    • tutor & students from Dept of History of Art (7)
    • Bodleian Libraries’ & Oxford Brookes SCONUL trainees (15)
    • private visitors (12)
    • total 114 (at least)

Some of the enquiry topics received in November:

  • advice re archival sources and research
  • advice re archival training and careers
  • requests for permission to quote from or publish images of archival material
  • requests for (new) digital images of medieval manuscripts
  • Balliol’s holdings of pre-800 and 17th century manuscripts
  • a Balliol tartan!
  • Biographical research re / info on Balliol or related archives of
    • people who were not members of Balliol
    • C18 and early C20 College servants
    • R Scott (Balliol 1835)
    • JA Spender (Balliol 1881)
    • A Entwisle (Balliol TT 1863)
    • GM Hopkins (Balliol TT 1863)
    • B Entwisle (Balliol TT 1869)
    • F Oppenheimer (Balliol 1890)
    • JHR Grenfell (Balliol 1906)
    • LU Kay-Shuttleworth (Balliol 1906)
    • EJ Kay-Shuttleworth (Balliol 1908)
    • GW Grenfell (Balliol 1909)
    • RP Haldane (Balliol 1911)
    • HS Malik (Balliol 1912)
    • L Fleming (Balliol 1922)
    • NM Roger (Balliol 1929)
    • A S-R Pyper (Balliol 1935)
    • OD Pratt (Balliol 1938)
    • CB Hobhouse (Balliol 1928)
    • NAM Grant Duff (Balliol 1928)

termly report – Michaelmas 2017

 This report covers the Archivist’s work May-November 2017.

A) Enquiries, researchers & visitors

 

May

  • Enquiries: 60
  • Researchers – unique users:  5
  • Seats occupied: 7
  • Collections consulted in person:  Oriental mss, western medieval mss, Jowett papers
  • Files produced May-Sept:  33 boxes, 83 files, 50 items and 74 mss
  • Visitors (non-research):  ca. 20

June

  • Enquiries: 62
  • Unique users:  4
  • Seats occupied:  4
  • Collections consulted in person:  Nicolson diaries, college records, medieval mss (2)
  • Visitors (non-research): ca. 55

July

  • Enquiries: 54
  • Unique users: 11
  • Seats occupied: 16
  • Collections consulted:  Monckton (4), Morier, college records, Strachan-Davidson, Clough, medieval mss, David Urquhart
  • Visitors (non-research): ca. 50

August

  • Enquiries: 44
  • Unique users: 6
  • Seats occupied: 12
  • Collections consulted in person:  Monckton (2), medieval mss, TH Green, Rawnsley, Jowett
  • Visitors (non-research): 3

September

  • Enquiries: 61
  • Unique users: 3
  • Seats occupied: 5
  • Collections consulted in person:  College records, medieval manuscripts (3)
  • Visitors (non-research): 400+

October

  • Enquiries: 55
  • Unique users: 10
  • Seats occupied: 13
  • Collections consulted in person:  College records,  medieval mss (3), Browning, Nicolson, Monckton (2), Jowett, TH Green, Caird, RBD Morier, AL Smith
  • Files produced: 20 boxes, 14 files, 61 items and 24 mss
  • Visitors (non-research): ca. 55

November (incomplete at the time of reporting)

  • Enquiries: 43
  • Unique users: 8
  • Seats occupied: 15
  • Collections consulted in person:  College records,  medieval mss (3),  David Urquhart, Jowett, TH Green, RBD Morier, AL Smith, Oppenheimer, FF Urquhart
  • Files produced: 6 boxes, 3 files, 11 items and 34 mss
  • Visitors (non-research): 110+

Period totals

  • Enquiries: 379
  • Unique users: 47
  • Seats occupied: 72
  • Files produced: 53 boxes, 97 files, 101 items and 98 mss
  • Visitors (non-research): 860+

2017 running totals

  • Enquiries: 677
  • Unique users: 79
  • Seats occupied: 116
  • Visitors (non-research): 920+

*Files produced: one production slip may record anything from a single item to a complete box. These numbers tell more about the amount of fetching and carrying involved than about the volume, breadth or detail of material consulted. The number includes material consulted by the archivist while researching responses to remote enquiries as well as those produced to researchers in person.

 – A box may contain up to 10 bound volumes or 6 files containing several hundred individual items. Numbers of boxes given do not include files.

– A file may contain up to 200 items. Numbers of files given do not include items. 

– Individual items may range from a single letter to a bound volume. Numbers of items given do not include medieval ms codices.

A sample of research topics, by researchers in person and remote enquirers, from the reporting period:

‘I am assessing materials available and avenues of research on the history of the church of St Lawrence Jewry.’  (May)

‘[I would like to consult] the archives of James Justinian Morier… I am particularly interested in any correspondence, diaries or drawings/paintings relating to his accompanying the British intervention in the Russian-Iranian agreement that led to the signing of the treaty of Gulistan on the 24th October 1813.’ (June)

‘I am writing a book about the 1848 revolutions and I am interested in Arthur Hugh Clough, Arthur Stanley and Benjamin Jowett.’ (July)

‘I am looking in letters sent from India for evidence of health and health care in C19 India.’ (August)

‘I am looking for evidence of payments made in connection with the plates contained in Oxonia Illustrata to David Loggan, the engraver, ca 1670-1675, either by the colleges  or by the dedicatee (Sir Henry Littleton).’ (September)

‘My research work relates to the Anglo-American expatriate circle around Katherine Bronson in Venice during the 1880s.’ (October)

A digest of remote enquiry topics is now included in the monthly blog reports as well.

B) Arrangement & description and collection care

Lists by JHJ; edited and posted online by Anna:

  • Letters of Muriel Hatherley Rendell, later Cathcart
  • Papers relating to St Mary’s Portsea during WW1 (Hilda Pickard-Cambridge & OA Hunt)
  • Papers of AC Bradley, Fellow of Balliol
  • Courtenay Peregrine Ilbert (1841-1924), Balliol 1860 (Fellow 1864, Bursar 1871-1874)
  • Papers of Francis Oppenheimer
  • Papers of Peter Lyne re St Cross Church

Papers of AF Giles (Balliol 1936), 100+ fascicled letters to his parents while a student at Balliol and active in student politics and the Union, 1936-1939 (2 volumes & 3 mounted photos). Listed by Anna and posted online.

The Caird Papers have been physically numbered to correspond with JHJ’s relisting and better descriptions. The TH Green, David Urquhart and Morier Family papers have additional descriptions and clearer numbering. and improved physical numbering.

Medieval mss: boxing more than 100 manuscripts for the first time resulted in the need to adjust some of the shelving on N5. Shelving changes, shelf check and updated finding aid are complete.

Conservation: treatment of several medieval manuscripts was completed over the summer in preparation for the MT exhibition. In particular, MS 354 (Richard Hill’s commonplace book) has had key repairs to the sewing structure and badly softened page edges, and has been reboxed to replace an old non-acid free Maltby’s box. While it is still fragile and requires careful and minimal handling, it is now safe to produce for (a very limited number of) researchers again.

Engagement

Social media

  • Facebook: 1003 Likes. Weekly updates, links to blog posts, notices of events, etc.
  • Twitter: 2172 total Tweets, 1602 followers
  • Blog: 30 new posts

Image management

  • Oxfile (OUCS) – used 24 times Sept-Oct, total 339 times, to send images, externally and within college, across archival collections.
  • I have been working with Emma Stanford and her successor at the Bodleian to correct some old (1997-2000) errors and missing images in the Balliol sets on http://image.ox.ac.uk/ , as the old site will be taken down once the contents have been checked and added to http://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/ .
  • Images created: 20K. More than 111K images on Flickr and 2.75 M views.

Outreach & Events

May

  • Anna & Gabrielle – handling workshop for Balliol English students
  • Unlocking Archives talk: Nikki Tomkins (OCC) on conserving Nicholas Crouch books for Wellcome project
  • Watford Girls’ Grammar school groups – manuscripts activity (repeat visit but new activity)

June

  • Bodleian archives & mss trainees – tour & careers talk (repeat visit)

July

  • Oxford Research & Innovation Support Conference delegates – general tour (recommended)
  • Dr Juliana Dresvina & students from St Peter’s College Summer School at Magdalen College – medieval manuscripts workshop

September

  • Open Doors – 7th year, medieval mss exhibition open, 300+ visitors
  • Balliol Society Weekend – medieval mss exhibition open
  • Evensong for the patronal feast of St Cross
  • Exhibition continues open all Michaelmas term
  • Visit to exhibition and service of Evening Prayer by participants in college incumbents’ conference

October

  • Antechapel displays and ‘Document in Focus’ features in Broad St Library, prepared by Anna, continue
  • Bruce’s Brunch talk by Anna re college history & special collections
  • Individual visitors to exhibition including Fellows and Old Members

November

  • with colleagues, staffed the College Archives stall at the postgraduate history thesis fair, Examination Schools
  • with Librarians, hosted an MCR viewing of the medieval manuscripts exhibition plus open display and discussion of early printed books (ca 15 attending)
  • Medievalists visiting exhibition, introduction and Q&A with Anna: tutors with students from Harris Manchester, Mansfield, the Education Department, Middlebury CMRS (Keble), Bodleian Conservation department’s preservation volunteers & staff
  • DIY Digitization workshop with Prof Henrike Laehnemann (SEH) for Palaeography, History of the Book, Digital Humanities Method Option MSt (following on from Prof Wakelin’s workshop in 2016)
  • Handling workshop and medieval manuscripts exhibition with Helen Appleton for Balliol 2nd year English students (return visit)
  • Oxford Conservation Consortium staff visiting exhibition (i.e. from the Grove Cottage studio)
  • Oxford Conservation Group visiting exhibition (conservators from Bodleian, Ashmolean, ORO, independents etc.)

Future events

Scheduled so far:

  • Display re Balliol’s WW1 poets and poetry (spring 18) & related talk/event
  • Book launch for Lynda Dennison’s ‘Oxford: All Souls-Lincoln’ volume of An Index of Images in English Manuscripts, from the time of Chaucer to Henry VII, c.1380 – c.1509, series ed. Kathleen Scott (Balliol has the largest section!) (HT18)
  • 3rd Holywell Manor Festival (April 18)
  • Visit from Wolvercote Local History Society (June 18)
  • Open Doors Oxford (Sept 18)
  • Exhibition of Reconstructing Nicholas Crouch project (MT18) & related talk/event
  • Oxfordshire Record Society AGM & visit to exhibition (Sept 18)
  • Loan of Gerard Manley Hopkins material to Campion Hall for display during GMH Symposium (Sept 18)
  • Display of photos and archives for Chalet Trust event (Sept 18)

CPD/training/staff

Anna CPD:

  • Attended Archives Hub training meeting for college archivists (June)
  • Attended ‘Recent conservation and research on the two Winchester Bibles: a day symposium’ at the Weston Library (June)
  • Oxford-Cambridge & Inns of Court archivists’ meeting (July)
  • Chapter on handling special collections material finally appeared in Loffman, Claire, and Harriet Phillips, eds. A Handbook of Editing Early Modern Texts. Routledge, 2017. (July)
  • Visit to Somerville College Library & Archives (August)
  • Attended OCG-OAC-CCL talk by Chris Woods (one of the authors) on BS 4971, the new environmental standard for the conservation and care of archive and library collections (November)
  • Attended talk by Matthew Holford (Bodleian) about the use of TEI (text encoding initiative) for creating electronic catalogues of medieval manuscript books from hard-copy data in print catalogues, based on his experience of projects at the Bodleian and at Christ Church (November).

Balliol student Kai Dowding (Balliol 2017, MSt Medieval Studies) is working with Anna on Friday afternoons in MT-HT for practical archival experience.

More details, more often, on social media:

https://balliolarchivist.wordpress.com/
https://twitter.com/balliolarchives

https://www.facebook.com/balliolarchives

http://www.flickr.com/photos/balliolarchivist/collections/

– Anna Sander, MT 2017 (November)

 


monthly report October 2017

Some numbers about archives & manuscripts activity during October:

  • Number of enquiries: 55
  • Running total for 2017: 634
  • Number of researchers in person (unique user): 10
  • Number of person-days in the reading room: 13 (open 16 days)
  • Collections consulted: college records,  medieval manuscripts (3), Browning papers, Nicolson diaries, Monckton archive (2), Jowett archive, TH Green papers, Caird papers, RBD Morier archive, AL Smith archive
  • Productions (consulted by researchers in person or by the archivist in response to enquiries) – actual numbers may be slightly higher:
    • 20 boxes containing from two bound volumes to 4 thick files of individual items, not including
    •  14 files – up to 200 items per file, not including
    •  61 individual items from a single letter to a bound volume, not including
    •  24 medieval ms codices
  • No of non-research visitors: ca. 55
  • images created: 1100
  • events: Anna gave the first Bruce’s Brunch talk (Balliol Chaplain’s weekly lunchtime seminar) of the academic year; Librarians hosted English Faculty 18th Century Seminar with a display of rare books; Librarians hosted Oxford Brookes publishing course students.

Some of the enquiry topics received in October:

  • advice re archives cataloguing and preservation
  • advice re student/volunteer projects in archives
  • requests for permission to quote from or publish images of archival material
  • requests for (new) digital images of medieval manuscripts
  • college portraits and paintings, including mural paintings
  • stained glass in Chapel
  • records of college livings and related estates/property
  • C19 overseas students at Oxford
  • Balliol men who were German casualties in WW1
  • Balliol JCR Presidents
  • Biographical research re / info on Balliol or related archives of
    • C18 and early C20 College servants
    • G Moberly (Balliol 1822)
    • GO Roos (Balliol 1887)
    • F Oppenheimer (Balliol 1890)
    • AB Muir (Balliol HT 1915)
    • Shoghi Effendi (Shogi Hadi Rabbani in Balliol’s records), Balliol 1920
    • EF Webb (Balliol 1926)
    • DM Davin (Balliol 1936)
    • MR Hardwick (Balliol 1945)

#mss2017 Introduction

Introduction

I have produced numerous small displays of medieval manuscripts for teaching and college events since I became responsible for the collection and moved it to the new premises in 2010-11, but this is the first major exhibition of Balliol’s western medieval manuscripts in the Historic Collections Centre at St Cross Church. It may even be the first exhibition of this collection that has been open to the public.

Because it’s rare for these ancient, unique and delicate objects to be exhibited, even to members of the College, I wanted to show as large a selection as possible, and to provide a broad overview of the collection. I have included manuscripts from the whole medieval period covered by Balliol’s collection (C11-16), representing a range of provenances, decoration and handwriting styles, contents, sizes, formats, physical condition, and conservation issues. Exceptions prove the rule; not everything in the exhibition is medieval, western or a codex (book-shaped) – or even manuscript (handwritten). Two manuscripts are shown closed; one is displayed upside down. Some mss are well known to scholarship and have been exhibited before; others are relatively unknown. All are catalogued (1-450 by RAB Mynors, 1963), but to widely varying degrees of detail and emphasis. Visitors may be surprised by the variation in the amount of documentation about not only conservation work but provenance and donation.

Focusing on the theme of damage and conservation removed possible restraints of e.g. period or subject, while avoiding a miscellaneous ‘Treasures of…’ approach. The manuscripts’ move to new premises was a good point in their history to assess their current condition and their needs for the foreseeable future, continuing to build on Balliol’s first several years as members of the Oxford Conservation Consortium.

Damage to manuscripts can occur at any stage of their existence – during production, while in storage, and in use (both voluntary and involuntary). I need only quote from the litany of woes turned up in the 2014 condition survey: dirt, losses, pest damage, staining, ink corrosion, text loss due to trimming, water damage, cockling, pleating, old repairs, smudging, ink fading/abrasion, ink offset, flaking gold, tears – to name a few. ‘Losses’ is a particularly painful catchall term including anything from a torn away corner to an excised illuminated initial to whole missing pages.

Conservators plan and carry out repairs to these amazing objects with great professional skill and enormous patience. Similar problems come up again and again, yet every case has to be treated individually, combining scientific understanding, practical knowledge and a creative approach. Much of their work is hidden inside a book’s binding once treatment is complete. Most items are not intended to, and do not, look ‘like new again’ after repair; they show their old scars as part of their material history, but are made safe to handle again (carefully) without causing immediate further damage.

In addition to repairs, however, the conservation team also help their members with advice and support on a wealth of related subjects: pest and environmental monitoring, preservation materials, all aspects of exhibition production, borrowing and loan of objects, transport, general and specialised handling and cleaning training for staff, loan of specialist equipment and advice on purchase, disaster preparedness and emergency response planning and training, and as we all do, career advice and visits for students.

Not every manuscript shown has been conserved – or at least not to modern standards – yet. The exhibition features a number of fine examples of the work of the Oxford Conservation Consortium and previous conservators known and unknown, but it marks a milestone rather than an endpoint. The OCC has been providing conservation services to Oxford’s special collections since 1990. Balliol joined it in 2006 at the instigation of Dr Penelope Bulloch, then Fellow Librarian, and with support from John Phillips and the Balliol Society. The OCC became an independent charity in 2014, and Balliol’s Archivist and Finance Bursar sit on its management committee. The OCC now cares for the historic collections of 17 colleges. They also maintain the Chantry Library of conservation-related publications, which is available to everyone.

A great advantage of OCC membership is the ability to plan not only a full year’s work but strategies and priorities for years to come. We have been able to move from a reactive programme of occasional work on individual manuscripts to proactive long-term planning that includes detailed conservation of key individual items but emphasises improving the condition and care of the collection as a whole.

Curatorial initiatives for the medieval manuscripts comprise a network of related projects:

Completed:

  • 2014 condition survey
  • boxing of all manuscripts (nearly 100) previously without boxes
  • 2017 exhibition

Ongoing:

  • Conservation treatment/repairs
  • Replacement of old/worn/substandard boxes
  • Improving descriptions and updating bibliography
  • Digitisation for documentation & research
  • Supporting teaching and research in person
  • Documenting manuscript fragments in early printed books
  • Workshops on correct handling of special collections material for students preparing for research using archives and manuscripts

The aim of all of these activities, and others as yet in the planning stages, is to improve preservation and access for all the manuscripts.

Preservation means ensuring the continued survival, and improved physical condition, care and handling of, all manuscripts. This is the responsibility of all staff and users of material. An archivist’s regular preservation tasks may include removal of rusty paperclips and staples, rehousing in acid-free archival quality folders and boxes, photography and scanning for cataloguing (to minimize use of the original), and training students and researchers in good handling practice.

Access is not only hands-on consultation of original material, but also improved access to better information about the manuscripts; images are an important source of information. It also includes improving understanding of the manuscripts as texts, physical objects and cultural products. Access is provided by staff and institutions, with input from researchers and scholarly publication.

Conservation means specialist professional treatment and repair of individual manuscripts, with the aim of ensuring that future careful handling/consultation/display does not actively cause further damage. Work is planned by staff in consultation with conservators, and carried out by the conservators.

Each of the manuscripts displayed is augmented by a number of prints from digital photographs, mostly enlarged details. While no facsimile edition or digital image can replace direct encounters with original manuscripts, they can support and augment research in person. An exhibition can only show one opening of a codex, or (usually) one side of an original document, at a time, in a single geographical place, to a limited number of people, for a limited period of time. Digital images can help to provide more access to information about, and contained within, the manuscripts, to more people in more places over a longer period. [more about digital images as tools for manuscript studies – not as substitutes for the original]

Digital photography of the manuscripts is carried out as part of my work as archivist, prioritised by researchers’ enquiries. Depending on the request and time available, I may photograph all or part of the manuscript, though in the case of part photography, ideally I will return later to complete the set. Images are sent to individual enquirers for ease of download, and also posted to Flickr at full resolution. Neither the original requester nor online users are charged for access to the images; widening access in practicable ways to collections that cannot be made generally available in person is part of the College’s obligations as a Charity, and of its aims as a higher education institution responsible for these historic collections. So far I have posted images of more than 100 of the medieval manuscripts online, many of them complete, in addition to some of the archives, personal papers, and key research resources, and the Balliol Flickr collections have had more than 2.5M views altogether (as of October 2017).

The supplementary images in each display case provide a window into other parts of the book and a magnified view of tiny details that can be hard to appreciate with the naked eye. If you are inspired by the original manuscripts on display to explore the wider world of manuscript studies, links to more images of these and many more of Balliol’s medieval manuscripts, and a starter list of print and online sources, are provided in the Further Reading post.

A note about display: I have chosen to display most of the manuscripts exhibited on the grey foam wedge supports we routinely use in the searchroom, with the pages in many cases held in place by fabric-covered lead pellets (known as ‘snakes’). Using ordinary supports shows a little of how we, curators and researchers, work with manuscripts; it looks less ‘produced’ than museum-style stands, but after all the collection is owned by a small institution and a very small department. Only a few sets are new for the exhibition, and all will be used after it. This saves huge amounts of specialist time, money and materials in making custom-fitted card or acrylic stands for each, and means that all the display materials will be used again for years to come, for research, teaching and future exhibitions, since the wedge sets can be used in interchangeable combinations to suit the size and opening angle of any volume. Only the four tiny books in case 9 needed their own stands made, as they had to be strapped into place to remain open.

I have also chosen not to print copies of the exhibition catalogue except for use while visiting in person; those who would like a hard copy are welcome to print the PDF version or any combination of the blog posts for their own use. Any exhibition of physical items is ephemeral, but a catalogue should have the lasting effect of opening the exhibits, though in an inevitably limited way, to a wider audience than could possibly attend the exhibition itself. An online catalogue can be accessed and printed at any time according to the needs of the user, and can also be augmented and corrected into the future.

I would like to thank Jane Eagan and her team of dedicated professional conservators at the Oxford Conservation Consortium for a decade of not only repairs to Balliol’s archives and manuscripts, and latterly to some of the early printed books as well, but also for their expert advice and support on all aspects of the material wellbeing of the historic collections, including environmental monitoring and amelioration, pest monitoring and treatment, local and international loans and exhibitions, project grant applications and planning.

I thank also Annaliese Griffiss for proof reading – all remaining errors are mine – and invaluable help preparing the exhibition, as well as her ongoing work on the Manuscript Fragments project, and Sian Witherden for good conversations about tiny books and for her contribution on book vandalism.

– Anna Sander, BA, MPhil, MScEcon, Archivist & Curator of Manuscripts, Balliol College

Photographs in this catalogue are by Anna Sander for Balliol College except where otherwise indicated.

The catalogue as printed for use by visitors to the exhibition is available as a PDF here. The print version is restricted to a single opening (one A4 double-page spread) per manuscript, which is as much as anybody can stand to read while walking round an exhibition; this online version, a series of blog posts tagged #mss2017, contains more detail and more images for most entries, as well as Further Reading sections for specific topics not included in the more general Further Reading post. The print version entries will also be used as Special Collections in Focus posters in Balliol Library and Holywell Manor during Michaelmas Term 2017.