– 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.

Posts tagged “archives administration

Q&A: digitisation

I was recently asked: ‘I noticed that quite a bit of material from your archives has been digitized, and that you have put it to fine use by widening access to the collection on the website and through online exhibitions.  I wondered how you are going about digitizing the items – are you working in-house, or are you using an external organization to do it, or a mixture of both? Please could you tell me how this is being financed, and if you are aiming to digitize the whole archive or just a part?’ This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked about my digitization programme at Balliol, and it prompted a bit of an essay on how I do things now and how that has changed since I began in October 2010. So here’s is an update to what I was thinking then.

web1Who does the work?

I do the digitising myself – I have an excellent A3 scanner and a serviceable but outdated camera which I’m about to replace. I allocate a few hours a week to scanning & photography so that it progresses regularly, if not quickly, but I am posting about 2000 images a month these days.

The occasional exception is when someone wants to photograph an entire manuscript or series for their own research; in such cases I ask for copies of the images and permission to publish them online and make them freely available to other researchers, with credit to the photographer of course. So far the few people I’ve asked have been very happy to do this, since they have had free access and permission to photograph. (Sometimes their images are not as good as mine, so then I don’t bother!)

There are also numerous documents in the collections that are just too big for me to photograph – eventually, if and when they are asked for, we will have to think about having someone in to photograph them systematically. So far the multiple photos of each that I or the researcher have been able to do has sufficed.

For now at least, I have decided against a systematic digitisation of our microfilms of the medieval manuscripts. This would involve a lot of time and effort to fund and arrange, the images would all be black and white, and of variable quality, and there are knotty questions of copyright as well. Some of the MSS were only partly microfilmed, and none has more than a single full-page perpendicular view for each page – no closeups or angles to get closer to initials, erasures, annotations, marginalia or tight gutters, so there would still be considerable photography to do anyway. Also, see below.

Why don’t you apply for a grant and have a professional photographer do more than you can do yourself?

So far, I’m able to fulfil reprographics orders in a pretty timely manner and to a standard that satisfies enquirers. Aside from cost and time management for individual orders, because I can respond individually and fit them in around my other tasks, the great advantage of doing the digitisation myself is that I am getting to know the collections extremely well. If we had an outside photographer do it, all that direct encounter with each page would go to someone with no real interest in the collections, what a waste. This way,  I’m checking in a lot of detail for physical condition, learning to recognise individuals’ handwriting, discovering/replacing missing or misplaced items, prioritising items that need conservation or repackaging, noticing particularly visually attractive bits for later use in exhibitions and so on, and not least ensuring that items are properly numbered – which many are not!

What is the cost?

???????????????????Because I work reprographics orders into my regular work schedule, there is no extra cost, except the £50 or so fee every 2 years for our unlimited Flickr account.

Do you charge for access?

I always mention that donations are welcome, but in general I do not charge for reprographics. Most of the requests are from within academia, and I think HE institutions have a responsibility to be helpful and cooperative with each other and with the public, particularly when it comes to access to unique items. On the one hand, I know that special collections are extremely expensive to maintain, and often have to sing for their supper, but on the other I know how frustrating it is to be denied the chance to take one’s own photographs and then to be charged the earth for a few images. Institutions like ours, whose own members may need such cooperation from other collections and their curators, should probably err on the side of the angels er scholars! Most of the other requests for images are for private individuals’ family history research purposes, and since many of those enquirers would otherwise have no contact with Balliol or Oxford, I think it’s good for the relationship between college, university and the wider public to be helpful in this way. Family history is usually very meaningful to researchers, and they remember and appreciate prompt and helpful assistance.

Balliol College reserves the right to charge for permission to publish its images, but may waive this for academic publications.

Are you planning to digitise all the collections or just parts? What are your priorities and how do you determine the order of things to be done next?

Most of the series I’ve put online don’t start with no.1. All the reprographics I do now are in response to specific requests from enquirers, and I don’t seriously intend, or at least expect, to digitize All The Things. Although 40,000 images sounds like a lot, and there’s loads to browse online, I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface; most collections aren’t even represented online – yet… This way, everything I post online I know is of immediate interest to at least one real person – if we did everything starting from A.1, probably most of it would sit there untouched. For the efficiency of my work and for preservation of the originals, digital photography is marvellous, enabling me to make every photo count more than once rather than having to photocopy things repeatedly over the years.

On the other hand, if someone asks for images of one text occupying only part of a medieval book, I will normally photograph the whole thing; or if the request is for a few letters from a file, I will scan the whole file. It’s more efficient in the long run, as a whole is more likely to be relevant to other future searchers than a small part.

What about copyright?

web2I probably should mark my own photos of the gardens, but I don’t think anybody will be nicking them for a book and making millions with it. As for the images of archives and manuscripts, of course I am careful to avoid publishing anything whose copyright I know to be owned by another individual or institution, but for older material that belongs to Balliol, I’m with the British Library on this one. I think as much as possible should be as available online as possible, for reasons of both access and preservation.

We do have some collections whose copyright is held by an external person or body, and in some of those cases I am permitted to provide a few images (not whole works) for researchers’ private use, but cannot put images online or permit researchers to take their own photos.

How do you make images available?

Now that other online media are available, I am reducing image use on the archives website,  to use it as a base for highly structured, mostly text-based pages such as collection catalogues, how-tos, research guides etc, as this information needs to be well organised and logically navigable. These days I am using this blog for mini-exhibitions discussing single themes and one image, or a few at a time.

Flickr is a good image repository for reference, not so much for exhibitions – I’ve written about that at https://balliolarchivist.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/thing-17/

I expect I will have rethought the digitisation process again in a couple of years’ time!

monthly report: January 2013

A new feature – each month I’ll be posting a report on some of the previous month’s activities. Items reported on will doubtless develop over time; some months there will be nothing to mention in some fields, but I’m guessing that won’t happen often.

Researcher services

  • Days open: 18
  • Number of remote enquiries (emails, letters): 70
  • Number of researchers in person: 9
  • Number of person-days in the reading room: 9 (not the same 9!)
  • Collections consulted: David Urquhart papers (2), Nicolson diaries, MS 260, MS 271, Archives sport/society records, Browning papers, Swinburne papers, TH Green papers, Caird papers
  • Topics of enquiry: MS 383, MS 354, AL Smith papers, family/individual history (12), Conroy papers, David Urquhart & Chalet papers, college heraldry, Hannah Brackenbury (2), Matthew Arnold, Swinburne papers (3), palaeography (4), Balliol Players, Jenkyns papers, records management, Adam von Trott, Harold Macmillan, Benjamin Jowett, RBD Morier papers, property formerly owned by Balliol, college history, college memorials, several requests for images…

Collection care

  • Cataloguing: Claire has finished detailing the Browning letters and is working on the Leonardo Society papers.
  • Digitisation: RBD Morier papers, file 15.6. 313 images posted to Flickr.


  • blog posts: 7
  • a tour of St Cross & one of Broad Street site
  • major overhaul of the website underway
  • advice to local church on care of their records


  • continuing 23 Things for Research (slowly!)
  • Learning Institute module
  • Conservation studio – session on procedures re loans for exhibitions

Q&A access to college collections and using archives for historical research

Q: I need to use primary sources for my essay/dissertation. Are there interesting sources in College archives? Where do I start?

A: The Lonsdale Curator is always glad to hear from students and tutors and to discuss potential sources in the College archives and elsewhere. At the moment I have students working on club and society records, the Swinburne Papers, the Jowett Papers and the Urquhart Papers. While college libraries are normally open only to members of that college, college archives and manuscript collections are open to anyone with a bona fide research question that requires access to the original source material. Primary sources are very exciting, but they are not always the most efficient way to get distilled information – after all, the reason or method in which the information was originally gathered and recorded, whether 25 years or a century or more ago, may well have had nothing to do with the kinds of information you want to get out of that record, or the way we think about it now. So make sure you exhaust secondary sources first – someone may have done a lot of the legwork for you!

Here’s something I prepared earlier about using archives for historical research:

These readings are recommended for anyone planning any type of research project that will require consultation of archival or manuscript material.

  • from the Institute for Historical Research – article
  • from the University of London Research Library Services – article
  • Archival Research Techniques and Skills – student portal
  • University of Nottingham: Document Skills – Introduction

A few notes:

  1. Plan ahead.
    • Many archives are not open full time and have very limited space for researchers; it may take some time for the archivist to answer your enquiry, or to get a seat, so plan your visit in advance.
    • Make sure you need to see the original material (see below), and if you do, that you are as prepared as possible.
  2. Do your secondary reading first, and find out which of your primary sources have been published, edited, calendared or indexed.
    • You will need that information in order to engage fully with the primary sources and make the most of your valuable research time.
    • Secondary sources often cite relevant primary sources and their locations.
    • Published sources may be available to you more easily and with less travel than original ones.
    • You will be better equipped to make enquiries of and ask for assistance from archivists and manuscript librarians.
    • The professionals you deal with will be able to tell whether or not you are well prepared, and you are likely to get more detailed responses if your enquiries are well informed. If it’s clear you haven’t read basic printed sources, they are quite likely to send you away to do that first. If you ask for primary sources which have been published, you will be given the published version.
  3. Use the online archive networks.
    • There is an ever-increasing amount of information online about archives, from general national databases to subject-specific portals. A few of the networks are listed here.
  4. Ask for help.
    • You are not expected to know everything about where to find primary sources. It’s more complicated and less systematic than identifying published sources, and archivists and curators are specialists in this kind of lateral thinking. (But do your homework first!)

International Archives Day 2012!

I’ll be celebrating International Archives Day (9 June) by participating in #archday12 on Twitter, organised by @AskArchivists. The day itself is a Saturday, so like many archivists around the world I’ll be taking questions and posting content (links on twitter to content here on the blog) on Friday 8 and Monday 11 June.

It’s an opportunity to ask all kinds of questions about archives, archivists and research using all kinds of original source material, from medieval manuscripts to early modern maps to photographs and film. Come and join in!

If you are not on Twitter, you can also ask questions for this event via the Facebook page or by the usual email. To see questions answered during last year’s #AskArchivists event, click the tag.


horns of the dilemma

Access and preservation – pillars of the profession, or, the archivist’s Scilla and Charybdis

I detest being pushed into the role of curmudgeonly dragon, so I wish people would not request to ‘glance through’ (e.g.) 19th century literary papers because they like the subject’s poetry. This is just not a good enough reason to ask to handle fragile, light-sensitive documents that are 150 years old. Use of archives is normally the final step of primary research on a particular thesis (research question), after thorough investigation of secondary and published sources. And I will say so, because my first duty is to the college and the preservation of its collections – otherwise there will soon be nothing left! But thank goodness for digitisation and the huge increase in access it makes possible. I am as committed to increasing access to the information within the collections as I am to physical preservation of the originals.

While the corollary of  increased access via digitisation is increased preservation of the original, its flip side is decreased access to the original. I do not produce manuscripts that have been digitised except for codicological queries that truly cannot be answered by consulting the facsimile. There is something special about direct contact with an ancient codex, but the fact is that every exposure to light, fluctuations in temperature and humidity and handling, however careful, inevitably causes cumulative and (at least in the case of light) irreversible damage to paper and parchment.

Access and preservation often pull in opposite directions, and the needs of the reader and those of the archives can appear to be in conflict. But archivists have to hold these two poles in some kind of balance, because without preservation there will soon be no access, and without access – and I emphasise that in most cases the important thing is access not necessarily to the physical objects but to the information they contain – preservation would be pointless.

Intercultural communication 1

This article, presented online in a positively Dickensian number of sections, originated as a lecture to postgraduate students on the Master CIMER (Communication interculturelle et muséologie au sein de l’Europe en reconstruction) programme at the Sorbonne (Paris IV) in March 2011. An edited version of part of it appears in the September 2011 edition of the Balliol College Annual Record. Parts of the online version were in the original notes, but were not presented owing to time restraints. My thanks are due to Mr. Aleksandar Protic, President of the Sorbonne UNESCO Club, for arranging my visit, and to the course director, Prof. Francis Conte (Hon Fellow of St Antony’s), for his very kind welcome.

The Sorbonne lecture was intended to give the students, many of whom come from backgrounds in various aspects of European heritage institutions, some idea of the scope of what I do as college archivist and curator of manuscripts at one of the ancient colleges in Oxford, with some reference to Balliol’s history and a few of its notable alumni. However, I also enjoyed the opportunity to look at my work through the lens of intercultural communication. One of the strong themes to emerge, perhaps not an obvious one for a job based in such an ancient institution, was that of constantly challenging expectations and assumptions. So for a bit of history…

Many people assume that archivists have to have a degree in history. This is not true; in my class of ten at archive school, only three had studied history for their undergraduate degree; others had first and second degrees in modern languages, philosophy, theology, classics and art history. (Not very many archivists come from science backgrounds – we need more of them!) My first degree was a BA in English Literature and medieval studies from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.  I first came to the UK 12 years ago for graduate studies at the university of York in interdisciplinary medieval studies. As part of the standard research training at York, I took modules in medieval/ ecclesiastical/ administrative Latin, which you may know is rather different (classicists would say worse) from Classical Latin, palaeography and codicology. Gradually I became more interested in the manuscripts, books and documents themselves than in pursuing an academic career, and decided to see about becoming an archivist.

As a standard prerequisite to the professional archivist’s Master’s degree I undertook a year’s graduate traineeship at the cathedral archives of York Minster. I knew from my research degree and my experience at York Minster that I wanted to develop and use those now-rare skills for dealing with medieval documents in a small specialist archive, probably connected with either the Church of England or a university, because of the size and nature of their collections. From the (then) three places in Britain which offered the one year’s professional Master’s degree in archives administration I chose Aberystwyth in west Wales because it is now the last of the three to retain the traditional auxiliary sciences as core modules.

However, I was not only looking back to the past; my dissertation concerned the use of online digital resources for teaching medieval palaeography and diplomatic, and my interest in ways of using digital technology to bring medieval records and the skills needed to work with them to a wider audience continues. I then worked for a year at the archives of Glasgow University. During that year, while I was wondering whether my contract would be renewed or not, the job at Balliol College in Oxford came available and because it stipulated a requirement for a medievalist’s skills, I applied more for interview practice than with any expectation of getting it. I was pleased to be offered an interview  but did not expect to be offered the job, and was not even sure I would want to accept given the chance. I had never had anything to do with Oxford before and assumed that in a world of stuffy old-school-tie customs and old-boy network nepotism I must be the outside candidate: Canadian, young, female, not an Oxbridge graduate, even coming from outside the south of England… and then they offered me the job about two hours after the interview. So I moved south and life changed again – and with it had to change my completely ignorant assumptions and prejudices about my new employers…

next time: rethinking intercultural communication for Oxford archives…

AskArchivists Q&A 3

Another couple of musings on questions tweeted during Ask Archivists Day:

Q: What is a typical day as an archivist like?

I’ve never yet had the same day twice, and I like that.  A typical day is constantly interrupted, which can be frustrating (and inefficient), but requires short-term flexibility and long-term focus. A good day is one in which you can start AND finish something. Or at least finish something.  Most of my days at the moment consist of some or all of the following:

  • packing archives on the main site
  • unpacking on the new site
  • answering enquiries, possibly a bit more briefly than usual
  • labelling boxes
  • updating the locations database as more boxes are shelved
  •  adjusting lots of metal shelves in the new repository to maximise space use efficiency, since so many of our things are not standard sizes
  • letting maintenance people in and out, and trying to decipher all the tech-speak to find out what they are actually doing, and what I may need to know about its inner workings later
  • telling tourists that St Cross is not a parish church anymore, but rather a college building, and so they are not allowed to wander round, but that if they have a research question, including about the memorials in the church, they are welcome by appointment from October, and that the church will be open to the public for Oxford Open Doors on the second weekend in September (subtle plug there)

Ask me again in three months and there will be no more packing and upacking, but quite a lot more fetching and replacing of archives from the repositories, invigilating of researchers and (if I’m lucky) cataloguing on the list! A particularly good day ends with a group of college archivists meeting in the pub.

Q: What draws most of us to the profession?

I’d be curious to see others’ response to this question; I suspect that few paths to a career in archives are without twists and turns. I came at it sideways from a higher research degree in Medieval Studies, where I enjoyed learning medieval Latin and palaeography immensely.  I love having a job in which such apparently arcane skills are of daily practical use, and I get to read, use, photograph and write about medieval manuscripts much more than most academics ever do, even though most of that work consists of contributions to or facilitation of someone else’s research. It’s always a challenge – you learn the standards and formulae, and you need those systems and frameworks to make any sense of archives, but they never apply in quite the same way twice. And one corner of my soul is forever a systems geek, so I have a certain guilty pleasure (very strictly limited) in records management theory. Despite the delight in systems, I’m not a naturally tidy person, so I appreciate being able to detect and restore order to a collection and describe it so that it becomes orderly, comprehensible and useful (and even interesting!) rather than just a frustrating box of messy STUFF. And – well, medieval Latin, 14th century handwriting… nowadays these are in effect secret codes, and being a codebreaker is very cool.