– 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 “early printed books

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

Family History enquiries

Looking for information about an individual who may have been a member of Balliol College? Here’s how:famhistenqs3
(1) Balliol biographical research resources – see also the University Archives’ helpful links to several of the same sources.

(2) AE Emden, A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to AD 1500 (3 vols, 1957) and a supplementary volume 1501 to 1540 (1974). (Print resource only)

(3) Joseph Foster, Alumni Oxonienses 1514-1700 and 1700-1886

(4) Oxford University Archives

(5) Oxford University Calendar and the Oxford University Degrees Office

(6) Oxford Archivists’ Consortium (OAC) – contact details for all college archives and other local resources

(7) Balliol Archivist

EPBs survey

It’s that time of year – here’s one for the series ‘What can college librarians possibly find to do all summer while the students are away?’ Well, the Library staff are currently carrying out a Grand Shelf Check of all the early printed books – it’s especially important that we know, and record, where everything is because some of the EPBS were moved to St Cross in 2011-13 and some are still in Broad Street. And as always happens with thorough checks like this, all sorts of interesting things are turning up! Some of them include significant proportions of manuscript material – more about this as they emerge. From yesterday:

Balliol Library 470 a 19 is a very small book – 10 x 6 cm or so. The cover is parchment

and it’s stitched through the cover on the spine to form a simple cover without boards.

There is a faint reference number of some kind on the front – it may pertain to an old library shelfmark (Balliol or a previous owner) or it may even be an archival reference, because…


the cover is in fact a cut-down and reused administrative document. This is not unusual – palimpsests (erased texts that have been written over) get the press these days, but old parchments were often reused in humbler ways, as pastedowns, fly/guard/endleaves, linings, fastenings, page markers and indeed as in this case, covers. Here we can see the title page and the inside of the front cover – the document is upside down.

Oh – the contents of the printed book? Prattica cioe inventione di Conteggiare, published in Brescia by Ludovico Britannico.

Now we know we’re in Italy, back to the cover!


Part of the document is conveniently shaped to form a fore-edge flap for the book. It’s now very stiff, and has been folded inside the back cover for so long it doesn’t function as a flap anymore.



Here is what we can see of the document – upper left of what remains of the text, now the upside down lower part of the inside back cover of the book.


Lower left of the document: the notarial sign and colophon – see Medieval Writing’s useful explanation.


Back to the front of the book for the right hand side of the document…


the upper right


and the lower right.

I don’t have time to familiarise myself with Italian legal documentary formulae, and I don’t know what kind of transaction this document records, or quite how much of it is missing (clearly we have the bottom but not quite the beginning), but I hope somebody who’s practising Italian palaeography and diplomatic may find it interesting! Do drop us a line if so…



Emeritus Fellows of Balliol Prof Diego Zancani and John Prest, with their guests Dr Yutaka Akagawa, Professor Emeritus of Meiji Gakuin University (Tokyo) and Dr Keiichi Matsudaira, Professor at Tokyo Denki University, came to visit the Historic Collections Centre this week. Both Professor Akagawa and Professor Matsudaira have written and lectured extensively on the history of English gardens, and garden history was the focus of the day.

Items produced were:

  • John Rea’s Flora: seu De Florum Cultura. Or, A Complete Florilege, furnished With all Requisites belonging to a Florist (London, 1665) (a facsimile is available here)
  • John Evelyn’s Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions, to which is annexed Pomona, or an Appendix concerning fruit-trees, In relation to cider, The Making and several ways of Ordering it.  Also Kalendarium Hortense: or, The gard’ners almanac, directing what he is to do monthly through-out the year. And what fruits and flowers are in prime (1664)
  • David Loggan’s C17 bird’s eye view of Balliol and
  • Williams’ C18 plan of the Broad St site, which emphasises formal gardens so much that I suspect it may be a never-realised grand scheme!

Professors Akagawa and Matsudaira enjoyed seeing first editions of texts they had known so well for decades but had never seen in the original before. Stay tuned for more of Balliol’s garden history as Prof Zancani and our head gardener, Chris Munday, continue their research…