– 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

Trinity Term on facebook

I post brief monthly statistics here, but for readers who just can’t get enough archives news, there’s a weekly update on Facebook as well. Here’s the roundup for Trinity Term:

We’re now on Summer Time. This week in the archives: researchers for medieval manuscripts, Monckton archive, college records, Oriental manuscripts, incunabula. The Malcolm exhibition has closed. I’m looking forward to a first visit to Lincoln College’s archives. It’s the last week of March, so I’ll be rounding up the month’s enquiries and other statistics for the usual report on the blog.
The important Oxbridge news this week: the Boat Race! Congratulations to the Cambridge women and Oxford men – both the Cambridge Women’s Blue boat and Blondie (Cambridge women’s reserve boat) won, as did the Oxford Men’s Blue boat and Isis (Oxford men’s reserve boat). The Lightweight races took place at Henley earlier in the week; Cambridge-heavy results at http://henleyboatraces.com/…/henley-boat-races-2017-results….

This week in the archives: more sensors installed in the big repositories, to give us a better picture of the climatic conditions via the BMS. Otherwise an unusually quiet week (so far) for researchers and visitors, so I will be putting together and mounting a new display for the antechapel, taking and processing photos for reprographics orders, creating a monthly report, writing up some new Documents in Focus sheets for the college library next term, planning a couple of upcoming displays for college events… oh and I might just get some cataloguing done.

The archives will be closed Wednesday 12 April – Monday 17 April incl. I will be back on Tuesday 18 April – Week 0 of Trinity Term.
Normal service has resumed – week 0 of Trinity Term. Just readers for medieval mss and early printed books, so while it’s still quiet in the search room, I’m preparing for the Les Woods memorial display next week, a workshop for students on correct handling of fragile materials, a visit by parishioners from a Balliol living, the history thesis fair, and a number of other entirely unrelated things coming up. And expecting enquiry no. 300 any day now.
Trinity Term! TT1 in the archives: researchers looking at (and photographing) medieval manuscripts, history thesis fair at Exam Schools, preparing for a visit by parishioners of a College living and for a joint presentation on correct handling of special collections material.

Temporary exhibition this week: Prof. Leslie Colin Woods (1922-2007), Tutorial Fellow of Balliol in Engineering Science 1960-70, Professor of Mathematics and Professorial Fellow of Balliol 1970-90, Emeritus Fellow 1991-2007.

Exhibition curator Dr Joanna Ashbourn draws from the Les Woods Archive at Balliol College to illustrate aspects of Prof Woods’ personal life, his experience as a World War II fighter pilot, and his long and varied academic career.

Open to the public Tues-Fri 25-28 April 2017, 2.30-5pm
Balliol Historic Collections Centre, St Cross Church, Manor Rd. OX1 3UH (ring the buzzer on the side of the notice board).
Questions? archivist[at]balliol.ox.ac.uk
May Day in Oxford to start Trinity Term week 2. This week in the archives, researchers for college records and medieval manuscripts, a workshop for students on handling special collections materials safely, and a new chiller pump for the repository air conditioning system. April statistics coming soon…

TT3! This week in the archives: no readers booked (yet), so it’s time to catch up on accessioning, cataloguing, enquiries, termly report for Library Committee, September exhibition text, productions & returns, (re)boxing, antechapel displays, Documents in Focus for the library, manuscript photography… funny, I don’t think I’ll fit in that thumb-twiddling session after all!
Trinity Term Week 4: this week in the archives, researchers for college records and Jowett Papers; several visitors, and Material Evidence in Incunabula group cataloguing continues. April’s brief report is up on the blog and I’m continuing several of the things I started last week.
Trinity Term week 5: this week in the archives, again quiet on the researcher front, which is good as there’s been a spate of internal admin enquiries. A long-running printer ink saga is over, so there’s a new display in the antechapel. Approaching both the end of the month and termly Library Committee, so collating and writing of stats and reports on the menu this week as well.

Reminder of Unlocking Archives talk: this Wednesday (24th) at 1pm, Nikki Tomkins of the Oxford Conservation Consortium will speak about her work for Balliol this past year, repairing early printed books as part of the Reconstructing Nicholas Crouch cataloguing and conservation project. A preview is available via her blog posts:https://balliollibrary.wordpress.com/tag/nikki-tomkins/
Trinity Term week 6: a ‘quiet’ week in the archives, which means getting lots of work done! Congratulations to Balliol M1 and M4, who both got blades in last week’s Eights – apparently M1’s first non-Headship blades ever. If the previous sentence is in Martian for you, now you know why 10 years ago I got in a boat and rowed with Balliol’s second women’s boat for a year. Or rather, mostly went to the gym and the tank, because the river levels were horrendous, but the sun did come out for us during Eights week. Have a look at https://twitter.com/balliolrowing/with_replies Never row 😉
TT7. This week in the archives: a 4 day week for me. More unglamorous but essential behind the scenes maintenance tasks this week while the researcher schedule remains quiet. Enquiries, however, are far from quiet – May stats will be appearing on the blog this week. On Friday I’m looking forward to working with a school group, looking at manuscript books, letters and other items written in different languages and scripts.
TT8, the last week of the academic year, at least for most undergraduates: this week in the archives, the postponed Library Committee meeting, a visit from a local history society, and an archivists’ meeting about the Archives Hub, which we are on:
https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/data/gb3107-balliolarchive A new antechapel display will go up in Broad Street this week and the promised May stats will be on the blog along with a summary of last week’s school visit and activity.
TT9: some students are still sitting exams, but for most the strife is over for better or worse, the weather is beautiful, and the rolling green hills of the Long Vac are appearing on the horizon. ‘Vacation’ in the archives, of course, generally means lots of visiting researchers! None this week, though, so catching up continues, focusing particularly on describing and adding new accessions into their permanent series and editing of small collection descriptions for uploading to the website and – pending new Editor login details – to the Archives Hub. Expecting enquiry #400 of 2017 any day.

monthly report May 2017

A few numbers about archives & manuscripts activity during May:

  • Number of enquiries: 60 (again)
  • Running total for 2017: 358
  • Number of researchers in person (unique users): 5
  • Number of person-days in the reading room: 7
  • Collections consulted: oriental mss, medieval mss, Jowett papers
  • No of non-research visitors: ca 20
  • Interesting events & activities: Anna & Gabrielle present hands-on special collections handling training workshop for Balliol English & History students; Unlocking Archives talk by Nikki Tomkins (OCC) on conserving Nicholas Crouch books for Wellcome project

‘My dear Margaret’ – letters from Benjamin Jowett


Three letters from Benjamin Jowett to Margot Asquith

Balliol College wishes to thank Sir Adam Ridley (Balliol 1961) for the recent gift of three fascinating letters from Benjamin Jowett to Margot Tennant, later Asquith, from a family collection. They are now part of Balliol’s extensive Jowett archive.

Sir Adam writes of their provenance: ‘[The letters] come from a scrap book started by Margot in 1890, into which she stuck letters or other fragments and souvenirs from people of interest and distinction. These include Gladstone, Tennyson, Balfour, Milner, Harcourt, Lord Salisbury, Hicks Beach, Sir John Fisher, Woodrow Wilson…  After Margot’s death the scrapbook appears to have gone to her step-daughter, Lady Violet  Bonham-Carter (m Maurice Bonham-Carter, Balliol 1899); and thence to Lady Violet’s sons, Mark (Balliol 1940) and Raymond, in whose custody it remains.’

Only of the three carries a full date: 29 November 1892. Another is dated 8 October, and from internal evidence mentioning the recent death of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate (6 October 1892), we can gather that it was also written in 1892. The other is undated, but from the subjects mentioned we may guess that it also dates from the autumn of 1892.

At this point Margot Tennant is 28, a brilliant (bordering on notorious) intellectual socialite at the centre of the ‘Souls’, and still a year and a half away from her eventual marriage to HH Asquith – a Balliol man from the early years of Jowett’s Mastership, and later the first Balliolensis to become Prime Minister. Benjamin Jowett, by contrast, is 75, at the end of an impressive academic and administrative career, in declining physical strength and intellectual power, and with just a year to live. However, he is still writing his own letters, and his interest in young people’s progress and the current issues of the day is as keen as ever. The contrast in their outlooks on life, and particularly his concern for her social and intellectual wellbeing, are marked in these letters, as in others published in her autobiography and his Life and Letters. Footnotes on all the people and events mentioned would occupy more space than the letters, but particularly noteworthy are Jowett’s remarks on the death and legacy of Tennyson, current politicians including Gladstone and Balfour, and political issues from Bimetallism to Fabianism, by way of disestablishmentarianism.

Sir Adam notes, ‘One interesting theme in Jowett’s letters is how keen he was to persuade her to write. Her diaries were remarkable, whether for their frankness, indiscretion, or shafts of insight expressed in uninhibited, mordant or witty language.’

How did these two very different people strike up such a long lasting, wide-ranging and evidently affectionate correspondence? Certainly Margot’s own social circle included many of Jowett’s former students, but according to her autobiography, she literally fell at his feet one day in 1887 or -8, when they were both visiting Gosford House in East Lothian, seat of the Earls of Wemyss and March. She writes, ‘When I met the Master in 1887, I was young and he was old; but, whether from insolence or insight,       >>>

I never felt this difference… Jowett was younger than half the young people I know now and we understood each other perfectly.’ In fact they must have met earlier, as the first of BJ’s letters to Margot published in Abbott & Campbell’s Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett is dated August 1886. More research remains for future biographers…

– Anna Sander


An archivist’s note about transcriptions

Jowett’s letters are always an exercise in palaeography – although he has a highly characteristic ductus (the distinctive and easily recognisable ‘look’ of his handwriting), many particular letter forms and some recurring abbreviations, he is not entirely consistent and does sometimes simply fail to include letters, particularly at the ends of words.

When creating a word-for-word transcript, we first number the pages and lines of text per page. Writing the first draft of a transcript to fill such a form line by line should prevent missing out or repeating words or lines, will make it practical to skip difficult passages for now and concentrate on the ones that can be completed quickly, and will facilitate proof-reading and correction later. Sometimes when we ‘have our eye in’ we can easily read several lines at a time; but then there will be a word or two that seem entirely illegible. On a first pass, we may leave a blank with the right number of letters – or at least relative length. Often context will help, but not always. After exhausting context clues, we compare the form of each letter, or clusters of letters, to similar ones above and below. We may have to make a list of possibilities for each letter or cluster and try the combinations. Thanks to email and digital photography, the college archivists, all of whom work alone, can easily share the last difficult bits of a transcription to discuss with each other. This is immensely helpful to all of us and usually results in a solution. Have a look at the enlarged facsimiles provided and see how your reading compares, and what you can make of the remaining blanks!

Transcription conventions vary and should be adapted for consistency and clarity. If I see that Jowett has in fact written ‘vey diffent’ and there are simply no marks on the page representing the rest of the letters he doubtless would have used to spell ‘very different’, should I: 1) create a ‘diplomatic edition’ reproducing only the letters that actually appear, ‘vey diffent’; 2) indicate the missing letters in square brackets despite Jowett’s lack of abbreviation marks, ‘ve[r]y diff[er]ent’ ; or 3) exercise editorial control and silently correct to what was probably meant, ‘very different’? What the writer ‘meant to say’ is rarely so clear as in this example, and the transcriber’s solution will not be the same for all situations.

Letter A – 8 October 1892

p.1 line 1                       Ball. Coll.

  1. Oct 8 [1892]
  2. My dear Margaret
  3. I send back the first volume
  4. of Plato which has been delayed
  5. because I wanted to send with it
  6. a printed list of extracts for Plato
  7. for general readers. The list has
  8. not yet been completed + revised
  9. (though it is nothing only a few
  10. pages) – you shall have a copy
  11. when it comes from the printers. It is
  12. not published, but only an invitation
  13. to a few friends to have a taste
  14. of the good things which he provides.
  15. So we have lost Tennyson – and
  16. this age of literature closes in
  17. darkness. I was with him about a

p.2 line 1. fortnight ago. He was suffering a good

  1. deal from neuralgia, but we none of
  2. us supposed that the end was so near.
  3. He took leave of me very affectionately as
  4. ‘his old friend’: I have known him I
  5. think about 35 years and during that
  6. time must have visited him more
  7. than 50 times. I shall be delighted
  8. to talk to you about him when we
  9. meet. Read the ‘in memoriam’ again, +
  10. let us think sometimes of friends who
  11. are gone. Of whom we both of us have
  12. many who are near + dear to us.
  13. Are you struggling to write, and
  14. what progress do you make and what
  15. subject or subjects have you in mind?
  16. I would not advise you to attempt a
  17. big book at first, but rather try
  18. the strength of your wings in a series
  19. of tales like the scenes in Clerical life.
  20. You have never sent me the journal of
  21. which you have written. Do not lose

p.3 line 1. the opportunity of gathering together every scrap

  1. about Gladstone. It will be very interesting
  2. twenty years hence – The insights which reporters
  3. for newspapers are able to give is very different
  4. from that which an observing person who has
  5. seen a man nearer has of him.
  6. I am always pleased to hear from
  7. you if you have time to write to me +
  8. + to tell me your ideas about things. I
  9. have been hearing a good deal about the
  10. working man lately. He seems to be rather
  11. a terrible personage and a considerable
  12. political power. If he goes on at the rate
  13. which he has been doing during the last
  14. five years he will swallow us all up,
  15. or at least a considerable part of us:
  16. he will expand the union, disestablish
  17. the church, make the poor much richer
  18. than they are and the rich much poorer,
  19. alas! and will give every body a good
  20. deal of what properly belongs to others.
  21. Meanwhile it is not quite certain how far
  22. he will hold together, or whether the
  23. rich above him + the poor who are below
  24. him + for whom he does not greatly care

p.4 line 1. may not be too much for him. I am told

  1. that the most remarkable of the working men
  2. are Tom Man[n] John Barnes Ben Tillett
  3. (who has a voice that can speak to ten thousand
  4. men). There are also Hyndman who is a Stock
  5. broker and ?Champion formerly an officer in the
  6. guards. – these are the leaders – a little shilling
  7. book called Fabian Essays is worth reading
  8. as showing the ideas which are floating in
  9. the air – the politics of the future –
  10. and are at least as important as the ideas of
  11. Church Congresses.
  12. I am afraid that young ladies are
  13. getting rather naughty in these latter days.
  14. Did you read what Lady Frederick Cavendish
  15. said about them at the Church Congress?
  16. My secretary is waiting for me to
  17. begin + I must not detain him any
  18. longer. And so my dear Margaret
  19. thank you much for your kindness +
  20. affection to me. I remain
  21. Ever yours
  22. B. Jowett

Letter B – undated

p.1. line 1.                    Headington

  1. nr Oxford
  2. My dear Margaret
  3. It was very pleasant to
  4. me to get your note this
  5. morning at this place where I
  6. am staying about 2 miles from
  7. Oxford looking down upon its spires.
  8. Mr Abbott has lent me his
  9. house + I am here with Fletcher who
  10. you may remember, who is a very
  11. good companion + grows surprisingly
  12. in ability
  13. I am greatly touched by your
  14. affection for me. Nevertheless
  15. to use a phrase of Dr Johnson’s
  16. “I should become a very complete
  17. rascal”, if I believed all the kind

p.2 line 1. things which you say of me. But I

  1. quite agree that the two last Oxford
  2. parties were very pleasant, but that
  3. was due to the guests + to one of
  4. them in particular.
  5. I am glad that you keep friends
  6. with Mr Balfour. His friendship is
  7. a real honour, enough to turn any
  8. young lady’s head. I have always been
  9. of opinion that there may be friendship
  10. of a noble sort between men + women
  11. provided that, if possible, they are
  12. formed without consideration of marriage
  13. + there is no weakness or self indulgence
  14. in them; + that they are such that
  15. the world (for we must take some
  16. cognizance of the world) respects them.
  17. It requires a strong head + a great
  18. deal of self-control to carry them
  19. out. But I am not certain whether
  20. these exceptional qualities are to be
  21. found in youth.

p.3 line 1. Now about writing: I shall be delighted

  1. to help you, if you think that I
  2. can. I should like [you] to keep some record
  3. of what such men as Mr Balfour
  4. or Mr Gladstone or Lord Rosebery
  5. say – (not of course to be seen by any
  6. one but yourself.) To do this you
  7. must get to understand the politics
  8. of the day – Greville’s Memoirs are
  9. a good model for this, because
  10. he gives the gradual growth of his
  11. judgment from day to day, which he
  12. often alters as he knows more of persons.
  13. The Court is worth studying too as
  14. well as Politics if there is the
  15. opportunity of doing so. In England
  16. it is very powerful and hardly at all
  17. shorn of its greatness. Then as
  18. to writing stories I should read over
  19. Scenes in Clerical life, + some of
  20. Mrs Gaskell’s stories like Cranford +
  21. read also the Vicar of Wakefield
  22. + Miss Austen + see whether it is
  23. anything of this sort which you

p.4 line 1. are disposed to write; if possible ‘tap’ a

  1. new subject + tell people what they
  2.           all know but have never seen in a
  3. book: your tales should be unlike
  4. a French Novel or an American
  5. novel for different reasons. Read
  6. ‘with avidity’ all the best biographers
  7. which you can lay hold of – there
  8. is no better preparation for writing
  9. fiction – and write a book which will
  10. do some good in this sceptical +
  11. sensual age which will restore men
  12. to their better selves + give them
  13. confidence in goodness + respect for truth
  14. of all kinds – But I only wish to suggest
  15. possibilities to you + not to set[17]you a task.
  16. Will you send me + allow me to read
  17. some part of your Diary from time to time
  18. You have never explained to me the
  19. meaning of ‘Souls’- A lady tells me that they
  20. are a religious order of which you are the
  21. foundress. But I suppose that this is a free
  22. –mason’s secret. They are said to be the
  23. descendants of ‘Montagu’. I remain
  24. My dear Margaret
  25. Ever yours affectionately B Jowett

Letter C – 29 November 1892

p.1 line 1.            Balliol College

  1. Nov 29, 1892
  2. My dear Margaret,
  3. It gives me great
  4. pleasure to hear that the Bazaar
  5. has be[e]n such a success. I
  6. suppose that you cheated a good deal
  7. but then
  8. the pleasure ____ is quite as great
  9. of being cheated as to cheat.
  10. and then as famous authors tell us
  11. the end always justifies the means
  12. – I shall value your portrait
  13. I intend to hang it up in the small
  14. gallery of distinguished friends. I like
  15. Mrs Grenfell very much, but I do
  16. not believe that she is better than
  17. you, and I have not known her
  18. half as long : ( We are quite old

p.2  line 1. friends by this time; and I always wonder

  1. that you don’t get tired of me. You
  2. who are a bright young lady of fashion
  3. and I who am going the way down-
  4. –ward in life and am not far from
  5. the end.
  6. You are right in saying that I
  7. like you best when you are serious. I
  8. doubt whether you have yet quite discovered
  9. the way of mixing life in its true
  10. proportions. Do you sometimes feel yourself
  11. fired with the desire of living for others
  12. _ ____ far above fashion + splendor
  13. + great houses. Let us give to God
  14. our youth if possible – If I were the
  15. confessor of any one I would say to them
  16. Do all the good you can among the rich
  17. first, and afterwards among the poor; use
  18. all the faculties of your mind + all your
  19. experience of the world in the effort; I

[p.1 crossed lines – end of letter]

  1. Will you send me anything that you can possibly scrape together in
  2. recollection about Lord Tennyson? Hallam has asked me to send him
  3. something. (Private). Ever yours affectionately
  4. B Jowett

p.3 line 1. do ___ ?be found out.

  1. I know Dr Caird + his wife a
  2. little + his brother Edward Caird the
  3. Professor very well – The latter is one of
  4. my oldest friends + pupils – They are
  5. excellent men + have greater influence in
  6. Scotland than perhaps any two other men.
  7. Dr Caird is an admirable preacher –
  8. but I suspect that he has a little impaired
  9. his preaching of philosophy for which he is
  10. not equally suited
  11. You asked whether I thought that
  12. the Church should be disestablished. I
  13. rather find myself going in that direction.
  14. But disestablishment ought to be accompanied
  15. by disendowment, with a _____ clause for
  16. vested interests. It is a very difficult subject
  17. + the change except in Wales + perhaps
  18. in Scotland is not likely to be carried
  19. out in the next twenty years. The
  20. English Church has so little regard for

[crossed lines]

  1. Do you ever read Plato: I send you two copies
  2. of a list of passages for general readers. Put them
  3. into your copy.

p.4 line 1. truth – that is my quarrel with it, ____

  1. it has also so much to do with preferment
  2. ‘getting on’ that it is ?more unlike perhaps
  3.        the ^ ____ ____ religious body to the ideal society
  1. on the other hand I am sensible of the
  2. desirableness of having a gentleman in
  3. every parish: that has a great deal to do
  4. with the well being of English society
  5. and yet the ‘gentleman’ not having a wife
  6. + family is too apt to turn into a mere
  7. priest
  8. I am afraid that our friend Mr Balfour
  9. is getting rather into a scrape about
  10. Bimetallism. Do you take any interest in that
  11. question? Ask Sir C Tennant about it.
  12. Gladstone calls it rubbish – To me it
  13. appears to be chiefly a scheme for making
  14. ‘money cheap’ a thing which I abhor –
  15. I observed that in his speech Mr Balfour
  16. said nothing about the original proportion which
  17. gold + silver were to bear to each other at
  18. the first start off – that appears to be
  19. the most important point of all.

[see crossed lines at end of p.1 for end of letter]

Transcript of a letter from Margot Tennant to Benjamin Jowett, also produced for the exhibition. In this case the transcription is written out in ordinary lines without numbers, to make it more natural to read; however, the page divisions are reflected by paragraph sections.

Balliol College, Jowett Papers IIC.1.11

The Glen, Innerleithen, NB

Oc. 26. [18]91

Dearest Mr Jowett

It is too nice of you to bother to write to me when you must have such a lot of things to do + think about + when you are so gravely ill.

I am glad you do not think me frivolous. I do not ask any one to know how much I try to be good + intelligent to fill my life with energy + interests. I shall never never

forget all you have done for me. I am always writing either in books or people + altho’ I do not jump into print I daresay in time I may. You won’t forget to give me your Plato will you. Do not think me selfish

+ write please my name or yours or something in it. Any of your books or sermons I should value beyond all words just to have by my bedside + always to feel you leave some touch of your self and your work near to help me.

Ever your own true loving Margot


Unlocking Archives TT17

Wednesday 24 May (5th), 1-2pm at St Cross: Nikki Tomkins, OCC conservator, will give an illustrated talk in the Unlocking Archives series about her work for Balliol this past year, repairing early printed books as part of the Reconstructing Nicholas Crouch cataloguing and conservation project. A preview is available via her blog posts:

More about the Wellcome Trust – funded Crouch project:

All welcome! These talks are open to the public. Feel free to bring your lunch. There will be time for questions and discussion after the talk, and an opportunity to take a closer look at some of the Balliol special collections material discussed.

Unlocking Archives, now in its 5th year, is an interdisciplinary graduate seminar series of illustrated lunchtime talks about current research in Balliol College’s historic collections: archives, manuscripts and early printed books, and the connections between them.

Talks take place at 1pm in Balliol’s Historic Collections Centre in St Cross Church, Holywell. St Cross is next door to Holywell Manor and across the road from the English & Law faculties on Manor Road; see ‘Finding Us’.

Questions? anna.sander [at] balliol.ox.ac.uk.


handling special collections

Recently the Assistant Librarian and I gave a workshop for Balliol English and History students who are starting to think about planning for their dissertations, and how to include original source materials. My section covered 1) preparing to visit archives and 2) handling special collections materials. The topic of locating/identifying archive and manuscript material is (and indeed has been) a topic for a whole separate presentation; this presentation follows directly on from that topic.


  • archives are (usually) old and/or fragile
  • physical formats and condition can vary widely
  • handling should not cause (further) damage

Most of the material you will be looking at will be showing signs of age and perhaps wear – even if it’s not centuries old, it may have been badly stored, exposed to damp or heat, insects and other pests; it may be made of poor quality materials that deteriorate rapidly, and so on. The researcher’s main concern is how not to cause any further damage to the material while consulting it.

Once you start using archives, most things you look at will be between A5 and A3 size,on paper or parchment, and in flat/single-sheet or codex formats; but you may also encounter paper or parchment rolls, old photographs including glass plate negatives, archival bundles, folded items, fascicule volumes, textiles, biological specimens, artefacts, flat and 3-dimensional artworks, modern physical audio-visual and machine-readable formats – and tiny or huge variants of all these formats. They all require careful handling, but in different ways,


Of  course you are hoping to make original discoveries, but you want the surprises to be academic rather than practical. Time in the archives is always limited and never seems to be enough, so it needs to be used as efficiently as possible. Once relevant materials are identified, assemble as many of your academic tools as possible before tackling the archive material:

  • know secondary literature
  • know editions/translations/summaries/abstracts
  • request/consult catalogues/descriptions in advance
  • take copies with you for note taking
  • acquire necessary practical skills
  • request/consult digital images
  • ask for advice

Editions, especially diplomatic ones, can require almost as much knowledge of e.g. transcription conventions, abbreviations, language skills etc, as the original. What practical skills will you need to understand your sources?

  • languages of record, critical apparatus and secondary literature
  • palaeography and diplomatic – handwriting and formal structures
  • abbreviations, layout and formats, specialist vocabulary or technical terms for e.g. accounts, legal documents, weights and measures, forms of money
  • how to make codicological descriptions

Digital images may answer many of your preliminary questions, and in some ways they may be more convenient (reduced need to travel, ease of magnification etc) but they cannot replace the original. If you do need to see the original as well, digital images will be useful preparation, so always use them if available.

This is a complex field and every case is individual. Finding and using archive and manuscript material isn’t as straightforward as using modern (or even early) printed works. Ask for advice, from your friendly college archivist and special collections librarian, from your tutor, from the staff at the repositories you’ll be visiting, or preferably from all of us. Often there isn’t a single correct answer.

Planning a research trip

  • make preliminary contact with archivist well in advance
  • make & keep appointment
  • spec coll regulations are different, even if you are using the same reading room as circulating/non spec coll materials users
  • will vary between institutions and materials used
  • remember material is *unique*

Most archives should be able to provide you with procedural guidance, searchroom regulations, handling guidelines and a reprographics policy in advance of your visit – but you have to ask. Check their website first!

also ask in advance about:

  • physical condition of material you want to see
  • permissions, procedures, fees for taking photographs/ordering copies

In the archives: basic dos and don’ts


  • use pencil only
  • wash hands before each handling session
  • use appropriate supports as advised by staff
  • consult one box or file at a time
  • call staff attention to damage
  • ask for help with moving or using materials


  • bring coats, umbrellas, bags, laptop cases etc into the search room
  • use pens or rubbers/erasers
  • bring food, drink, gum/sweets, including water
  • mark documents in any way
  • touch text, decoration or damaged areas of the page
  • take photos without asking first

In the archives – productions & returns

  • fill in the forms
  • open boxes/files at ground level & on a table
  • watch for weight & shifting contents inside boxes
  • carry boxes horizontal
  • keep material 100% on the table, not hanging over the side
  • keep your notes etc separate from archives!
  • ask for help/instruction when needed

At your desk

  • have as little open as possible at a time
  • keep file contents in order
  • CARE: not all will be numbered…
  • look out for & report damaged or undocumented material
  • look out for loose/smaller items in a file
  • turn pages carefully

When photographing special collections material

  • ask in advance & don’t assume permission
  • check about approved use of images
  • be extra careful of support & handling during photography
  • make sure you can identify materials in your photos afterwards!

White gloves

  • regulations vary, check in advance
  • gloves aren’t magic!
  • take extra care when wearing gloves
  • place material flat if possible
  • hold rigid items by the edges
  • do not touch text, illumination or damaged surfaces

That’s a brief introduction to preparing for a research trip to an archive; next, hands-on contact with original records…

– Anna Sander 2017

monthly report April 2017

A few numbers about archives & manuscripts activity during April:

  • Number of enquiries: 60
  • Running total for 2017: 298
  • Number of researchers in person (unique users): 4
  • Number of person-days in the reading room: 7
  • Collections consulted: oriental MSS (2), western medieval mss, college records
  • No of non-research visitors: 55+
  • Interesting events & activities: temporary Prof Les Woods memorial exhibition open, and taken down; Anna & Gabrielle present hands-on special collections handling training workshop for Balliol English & History students; Anna with colleagues staffing college archivists table at undergraduate History Thesis Fair.

Les Woods memorial exhibition

An exhibition commemorating the 10th anniversary of the passing of Professor Les Woods (Tutorial Fellow in Engineering Science 1960-1970, Professor of Mathematics and Professorial Fellow of Balliol 1970-1990 and Emeritus Fellow 1991-2007) is open to the public on Tuesday – Friday 25-28 April 2017, 2.30-5 pm, at Balliol’s Historic Collections Centre, St Cross Church, St Cross Road, OX1 3UH.

The exhibition, curated by Dr Joanna Ashbourn, draws from from the Les Woods Archive at Balliol College to illustrate aspects of his personal life, his time as a World War II fighter pilot, and his long and varied academic career.

The Les Woods Memorial Fund, set up in his memory, is used to support academic initiatives at the College which may include a book prize or scholarship in his name. If you would like to contribute to the fund, please see this page.


text by Dr Joanna Ashbourn

Leslie Colin Woods was born in New Zealand in 1922. His further education was completed at Seddon Memorial Technical College in Auckland and after war service as a fighter pilot with the Royal New Zealand Air Force, he resumed his engineering studies. This was first at Auckland University College and then in 1948 at the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, after which he completed a degree in Mathematics. From 1951 to 1954, Les worked in the Aerodynamics Division of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington and then spent two years as a Senior Lecturer in Applied Mathematics at Sydney University. In 1956 he became the Nuffield Research Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of New South Wales before being elected to the first Tutorial Fellowship in Engineering Science at Balliol College, Oxford in 1961. Nine years later, Les moved to the new post of Professor of Mathematics (Theory of Plasma), remaining at Balliol as a Professorial Fellow. In 1984, he became Chairman of the Mathematical Institute and after his retirement in 1990, he continued writing books as well as his research into thermodynamics, kinetic theory, plasma physics and solar physics. He also published his autobiography, Against the Tide, in 2000. Les passed away peacefully at his Boars Hill home in 2007.

Copy of case01

Case 1 – Personal Life

Clockwise from left:

  • Copy of Les’s birth certificate. Les was born Leslie Colin Woodhead on the 6th December 1922 in Reporoa (near Waiotapu), New Zealand.
  • Photo: Les aged 6 months.
  • Photo: Les as a small boy, with a shark caught by his fisherman father.
  • Photo: Les was a Boy Scout in his youth in Auckland throughout the 1930s and eventually became the troop leader.
  • Photo: Les with an octopus caught during a fishing trip.

Wall: Les with his father at the entrance of the Purangi River, holding crayfish. [displayed in facsimile]

Copy of case02

Case 2 – Personal Life

Clockwise from left:

  • Photo: Les with his parents and siblings, and his first wife, Betty (standing).
  • Photo: Les and Betty on their wedding day in 1943. They divorced in 1977 after 34 years of marriage and Betty returned to Auckland.
  • Photo: Les’s five daughters, taken by Betty, 1964 (L-R: Pat, Jill, Coral, Diane and Liz).
  • Photo: Les in pilot officer uniform with his mother and siblings.
  • Photo: Les in Boy Scout uniform with his mother.

Wall: Seddon Memorial Technical College First XV rugby team in 1939 (Les is second from left in second row) – he attended the College in the 1930s. [displayed in facsimile]

Copy of case03

Case 3 – Personal Life

Clockwise from left:

  • Letter from the Warden of Merton College, awarding Les a £10 book prize, 1951. Les studied at Merton for first his DPhil in Engineering Science and then his BA in Mathematics.
  • Clipping from a New Zealand newspaper on Les’s selection as a Rhodes Scholar to study at the University of Oxford for his DPhil, 1947.
  • Letter congratulating Les on his academic performance at Oxford, from the Warden of Rhodes House, 1957.
  • Clipping from a New Zealand newspaper: Candidates for the 1948 New Zealand Rhodes Scholarships (Les is third from right).


  • Left: Les’s Oxford degrees certificate (BA 1951, MA 1951) and DPhil (1950). [displayed in facsimile]
  • Right: Les’s Doctor of Science degree certificate (1958). [displayed in facsimile]

Copy of case04

Case 4 – Personal Life

Clockwise from left:

  • Menu for Les’s 80th birthday dinner at Balliol College, 28 March 2003.
  • Les’s British Gliding Association Pilot’s Log Book – he took up gliding in 1996 at the age of 73.
  • Les’s gliding certificates for the UK and Australia (used during his visits to Sydney in the late 1990s).
  • Photos: Les during his gliding sessions.


  • Left: Photo, Fellows of Balliol on the Hall steps, 1989 (Les in second row, second from left). [displayed in facsimile]
  • Right: Obituary notice for Les in a New Zealand local newspaper, 2007. [displayed in facsimile]

Copy of case05

Case 5 – Life during the Second World War

Certificate for Les’s official surname change from Woodhead to Woods, 1944.

Photos: Les in Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) uniform, 1940s.

Wall: Certificate for Les’s first RNZAF commission, 1942. [displayed in facsimile]


Copy of case06

Case 6 – Life during the Second World War

Les’s RNZAF Pilot’s Flying Logbooks for 1942-1945; the open page shows that three of his fellow pilots were killed in one night in December 1944.

Wall: Last logbook entries for Les’s wartime RNZAF flying, July 1945. [displayed in facsimile]

Copy of case07

Case 7 – Life during the Second World War

Les’s RNZAF peaked cap, wings, Squadron Leader Identity Card, flying helmet and goggles for his tours of duty.

Wall: Les’s Statements of Service in the RNZAF, 1941-1945, and the New Zealand Scientific Defence Corps, 1950-1954. [displayed in facsimile]

Copy of case08

Case 8 – Academic Life

Letter from the Secretary of Faculties appointing Les as a Reader in Applied Mathematics at the University of Oxford from the 1st of December 1964.

Photos: Les in Oxford, the smaller photo during what he called his “Trotski phase” (ca. 1964).


  • Left: Letter from the Registrar, appointing Les to the Professorship of Mathematics (Theory of Plasma) at the University of Oxford, 1970. [displayed in facsimile]
  • Right: Letter from James Lighthill, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, congratulating Les on his Professorship, 1970. [displayed in facsimile]

Copy of case09

Case 9 – Academic Life

Left: Les’s second published paper whilst at Oxford (1950).

Right: Les’s paper on singular points in Poisson’s Equation (1953).

Wall: Front pages of Les’s papers on fourth order differential equations (left) and compressible subsonic flow (right). [displayed in facsimile]Copy of case10

Case 10 – Academic Life

Two of Les’s papers on aerodynamics during his secondment at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington (1953 and 1957).

Wall: Front pages of Les’s papers on aerofoils (1954) and shock waves (1969). [displayed in facsimile]

Copy of case11

Case 11 – Academic Life

Left: Les’s lecture notes on incompressible viscous fluid flows, in his distinctive neat hand, 1970.

Right: Les’s lecture notes on circular orbits and an oscillating pendulum.

Wall: Les’s 1965 papers on density waves and hydrofoils.  [displayed in facsimile]

Copy of case12

Case 12 – Academic Life

Left: Les’s lecture notes on second-order transport in tokamaks for MIT lectures, 1988.

Right: Les’s handwritten notes on the current in a railgun (1996).

Wall: Les’s philosophy of science papers on axiomatics in applied mathematics (1973) and on entropy and pink elephants (1977). [displayed in facsimile]

Copy of case13

Case 13 – Academic Life

Left: Les’s controversial manuscript on energy transport theory in tokamaks.

Right: Text of Les’s final lecture, the 10th Nerenberg Lecture at the University of Western Ontario in 2007.

Wall: Two of Les’s papers on solar physics (2001 and 2006). [displayed in facsimile]

Copy of case14

Case 14 – Academic Life

A selection of Les’s published books, including his autobiography.

Wall: Photo of Les taken for the jacket of his autobiography. [displayed in facsimile]

* * *