– 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.


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.

Some of the external (non-college) enquiry topics received in April:

  • Medieval Oxford – Colleges and Halls
  • Balliol’s foundation
  • Connection between Roger Bacon and Balliol
  • Connection of John de Balliol, King of Scots, with the Founders and the College
  • C17 membership and residence
  • John Evelyn’s diaries
  • Women in 18th century land transaction/ownership documents
  • Connection between Jane Austen’s family and Balliol
  • WW1 officer cadets at Balliol
  • Early Chinese students at Balliol
  • ‘unbuilt Balliol’
  • The St Cross building project
  • College Chapel registers of baptisms
  • The Balliol Barge
  • Records of student work and surviving examples
  • Biographical research on
    • Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead (Balliol 1873)
    • Wallace Le Patourel (Balliol 1886)
    • Charles Percy Hill (Balliol 1896)
    • Arthur High Sidgwick (Balliol 1901)
    • Hardit Singh Malik (Balliol 1912)
    • Alan Wallace (Balliol 1912)
    • Selkirk Chapman (Balliol 1919)
    • David Moffat Johnson (Balliol 1923)
    • Hugh Stretton (Balliol 1947)
    • Derek Parfit (Balliol 1961)
    • C20 College staff (College Servants in historical records)
  • information about and/or copies from
    • Mallet Papers
    • Arnold Family papers
    • Monckton papers
    • David Urquhart papers
    • AW Leeper papers
    • medieval manuscripts

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]

* * *

school activity: Balliol Boys’ Club

In 2014 I put together an exhibition about the Balliol Boys’ Club and WW1, and one of the derivatives of that research and curation project was an activity for visiting school groups about the Club. College archives tend to contain little if any information about the lives of children, and I hoped this rare insight into the leisure activities of those more or less their age a century ago would help to engage school pupils.


Introduction – the handout

Archival research is detective work!

Archivists work with many different kinds of historic collections to understand the people and organizations that created them. They use that knowledge to organize and describe the documents in a way that will be clear to others. In this way, archivists help to tell the stories of the past to the people of the future. Because archives are unique, they often need to ask lots of questions, and it can take time to find the answers. It is exciting work!

Can you use your detective skills to find out about the history of the Balliol Boys’ Club?


 There are clues all around the walls of the church for you to find – they will help you with answers to some of the questions. You will need to look at all the clues to put the story together.

Here are some questions you might try to find answers to:

  • How old are the photos? What date might they be from? Are they all from the same period? How can you tell?
  • What kinds of people were part of the club? How old were they? How often did the club meet? What kinds of activities did they do?
  • What happened to the club in 1914?
  • Apart from the dates, what clues can you find that these records are not recent ones?
  • What was the purpose of the club? Who was in charge?
  • When did the club start? Why? And who started it?
  • Do you think the members enjoyed their time in the club?

There is space to write on the other side of this page.



Activity leader briefing

Object: to interrogate and evaluate facsimiles of primary source material to discover the basic structure, purpose and history of the Balliol Boys’ Club; to learn about some of the textual, visual and material aspects of archival research – detective work!



Lightning potted history of the Club: http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/community/memorylane/10863390.Sixty_years_of_Balliol_Boys__Club/

There is also an illustrated published history: A Short History of the Balliol Boys’ Club, 1907-1950, by Cyril Bailey, and a later update A History of the Balliol Boys’ Club 1907-1971 with John Roughley and others adding to Bailey’s work. See also here.

What this doesn’t mention is that it wasn’t founded as an after-school club like those of today. Most of these boys would have left school at 14 or so, and in the early days, this was more of a ‘working-boys’ club.’  In later decades, as education and employment rules changed, so did the purpose of the club, though its activities remained similar.


– mount laminated facsimile ‘clues’ from the collection around the building for participants to find. They could be numbered, or tell the group how many there are, so they know whether they have missed any. All contain information relevant to the questions on their sheet.

– Introduce the idea of the Club. Talk through the questions on the sheet

– give the group X minutes, depending on age, experience and ability, to discover the clues and decide what information is useful for the kinds of things they are trying to find out. The clues may raise more questions! They can record both answers and questions on the back of the sheet.

– can work individually or in pairs – hard for more than 2 to look at a clue at a time

– they should leave the clues where they find them

– gather the group to discuss their findings. Work through the questions on the sheet – discuss orally, or can use a white board, get a student to write up points if an older group.

Does the group think the Balliol Boys’ Club sounds like fun? Is it similar to activities they enjoy today? How is it different?


What do the clues show about the impact of the First World War on the club’s current members and alumni?

For older groups, consider adding some of the cuttings or reports using dated/loaded language about class and privilege. Does the club’s intent seem old-fashioned? How might it have seemed in its own day? Do they agree with it? How have society, class identity, employment, education, leisure time  changed for young people of these ages?

For older students, provide access to printed sources as well: college history, Club history, WW1 memorial book 2 vols, Poulton biography, AI Adam biography, Rae etc. This isn’t cheating of course – in the real world, researchers are expected to use secondary sources before tackling primary material. Archives can be difficult to interpret, so it’s important establish as much background/context as possible first. How do the two kinds of sources complement each other?

Add some WW1-specific material (see exhibition) during the Centenary and/or as supporting curriculum.


There is still an active club alumni association. The Balliol Boys’ Club was unusual in operating here in Oxford, with town and gown meeting face to face. Several other colleges sponsored similar efforts in London – some still do. Although the Club itself has closed, its endowment fund is still used to sponsor youth activities in Oxford.


I’ve used this activity with children aged 11-14. In addition to delivering this activity myself at St Cross, I have briefed the (previous) college outreach officer and provided her with a full set of the facsimile documents so that she could lead the event on Balliol’s Broad Street site – often more convenient for visiting school groups – and take it into schools as well. Feedback has been good!

neighbourhood tour

Although it’s only a 10 minute walk away, not many visitors to Oxford percolate through the city centre over to Holywell parish. Here’s a brief look around on a sunny spring day:

antechapel display – Broad Street I-Spy

A combination of branches mostly still bare, spring sunshine, and recent cleaning of a lot of stonework is showing up lots of details of stone carving around Balliol’s main site at Broad Street. All of the features below are visible from publicly accessible areas outdoors in the front and garden quads. How many can you find?