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!
- 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
A guest post to close the research year at St Cross:
Robert Cowton was an early fourteenth century theologian based in Oxford, and Balliol archives house three manuscripts containing some of his treatises. I spent my week on a “micro-internship”, organised through the careers service, digitising these manuscripts for a group of researchers based in Germany. Making the images available online will hopefully save them, and the planet, a flight over. The three manuscripts, Balliol MSS 199, 200 and 201, are all executed in the same hand with matching decorations in red and blue ink.
I started off by photographing each of the pages attempting to give a clear and legible picture of the text. Wrinkles, curling pages and minute annotations did not make this an easy task. Handling a manuscript carefully and making the pages sit flat often seem to be diametrically opposed aims. If some of the pages are a little hard to read, this is because I have erred on the side of caution. Despite these challenges it was a real pleasure to work with the manuscripts; getting to feel the parchment and see at first hand the way the skin has been stretched and tanned to make it fit to write on. The tiny marginalia left by successive readers; from the eighteenth century page numbering (often with corrections) to the little pointed fingers indicating important parts of the text show the continued life of a text in a way that a modern printed edition cannot.
Once I had finished photographing the manuscripts I then jumped to the other end of the temporal spectrum and attempted to upload the images to Flickr. In order to get both Windows Explorer and Flickr to read the right title field data, each file had to be named twice, in two different programs. Once I had got through the renaming and uploading process it was very satisfying to see the whole manuscript online, waiting to be read.
I am very grateful to Anna Sander, the college archivist, for giving me this opportunity and patiently dealing with my questions and problems, as well as to the staff at Balliol library for giving me a desk on Friday afternoon and covering my lunch in college during the week.
– Mary Maschio (Queen’s College)
Anna adds: Some of Mary’s images have already had dozens of views, and I am very grateful for her help furthering the progress of manuscripts digitisation and sharing. I also thank the Oxford University Careers Service for organising the microinternship scheme, and appreciate their consistently excellent pools of applicants for these placements!
The benefits of last year’s condition survey of manuscript books continue apace: during last year’s manuscripts condition survey, we listed 155 manuscripts either unboxed or inadequately boxed. Boxing is a quick and effective – and relatively inexpensive, depending on the type of box – way to protect all kinds of archival material from light, dust and handling damage, as well as providing a certain amount of buffering from the environment.
First batch of 25 to be measured – these manuscripts are in good condition and require only light cleaning. Once they are boxed they will not need further conservation attention for a good long time, we hope. This will mean we can cross two dozen off our list of 155 quickly. The next tranches of mss will be measured in batches as well, in order according to how much repair they need, starting with those needing least binding repair, and avoiding those needing major text block repairs until the end. This isn’t just about getting through the list quickly: any change to the binding – and even some major interventions to the text block – may alter the outer shape of the book and therefore the box. Those will need treatment before they can be accurately measured for a box. Some may need a folder or wrapper in the interim.
The first lot of custom-made boxes has arrived from the Bodleian’s boxing and packaging department:
a surprisingly small package…
contains a certain number of boxes…
which are bigger on the inside than the outside! clever packing 🙂
one type of box – drop-spine, mostly used for larger, thicker or hardback volumes; several have string-and-washer closures on the fore edge for extra security and a little pressure to help keep the boards in shape
all done – another two dozen manuscripts safer on the shelf and during production!
A small display in Balliol’s Historic Collections Centre at St Cross Church, Holywell, for the Friends of Reading Abbey, 8 July 2015
scan of seal dorse presented with reading copy of deed and transcript adapted slightly from Salter
display case with original deed and supporting facsimiles and transcript
original deed was flattened long ago – conservators probably wouldn’t do this now, but it does make it easier to display
with much-magnified scan print of seal face – beautiful and in pretty good shape
recto of document, face of seal
detailed scan of seal face
verso of document, with endorsements, and seal
black and white contrast-tweaked crop of the document for easier reading of the text
Oxford, Balliol College Archives D6.21 Gifts by the abbot of Reading towards the building of the chapel of St Katherine.
1 January 1327/8. [Salter Oxford Deeds of Balliol College 584, adapted slightly]
1 Nouerint uniuersi per presentes quod dominus Nicholaus de Quappelade dei gracia Abbas Radyng’ liberauit sco
2 laribus domus de Balliolo in Oxonia viginti libras sterlingorum pro anima Ade le Poleter burgensis Radyng’
3 ad fabricam capelle sancte Katerine eiusdem domus. Item dedit predictus Abbas prefatis scolaribus decem marcas
4 argenti ad fabricam capelle predicte quas ab eodem Abbate per duo scripta obligatoria prius ex mutuo receperunt.
5 Dedit eciam predictus Abbas prefatis scolaribus unam fenestram vitream precii decem librarum & amplius
6 pro capella supradicta. Summa tocius xxxvj libras xiij s. iiij d. Item dedit eis meremium, lathes, & alia minuta
7 cum cariageo eorundem, que hic in specie non numerantur. In cuius rei testimonium tam predictus Abbas quam predicti
8 scolares presenti intenture alternatim sigilla sua apposuerunt. Hijs testibus magistro Thoma Othom tunc
9 Cancellario Uniuersitatis Oxon’, magistro Nicholao de Luceby tunc custode predicte domus, magistro Nicholao de
10 Tyngewyk’ & custode sigilli communis predictorum scholarium & multis alijs. Et remanebit una pars huius
11 indenture penes predictos scolares & alia pars penes custodem altaris capelle beate Marie virginis infra
12 Abbathiam Radyng’. Dat’ apud Radyng’ die veneris in festo Circumcisionis domini Anno domini millesimo
13 Tricentesimo vicesimo septimo.
Red seal 2.5 in x 1.75 in, bishop [?abbot] in mitre and chasuble, with book and pastoral staff. Legend: S’ NICHI’ DEI GRA… [?EPISCOPI] …ILCE.SIS.
A number of other documents from early in the college’s history were also on display, and visitors were interested in the history of the building and the other print and manuscript special collections kept as St Cross as well as the college’s administrative records. Our student intern explained his summer research project, working on another part of the college archives: the library’s 17th century book borrowing registers. Stay tuned here for some of his findings later in the summer…
Do you have photos of manuscripts held in Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries? now you can make them available to other researchers via their Special Collections #DIYdigitization group: have a look! https://www.flickr.com/groups/bodspecialcollections
There are instructions for naming/shelfmarking/tagging your uploads so others can find them, and so photos of the same ms from different contributors can find each other.
Balliol researchers are encouraged to do the same https://www.flickr.com/photos/balliolarchivist/collections/72157631849081491/
Opening access to archives and manuscripts, one click at a time…
Another use of last spring and summer’s survey of the medieval manuscripts: a researcher wanting to consult a long list of manuscripts, not necessarily in a particular order, had them produced by size, starting with the smallest. Result: only one swap to a different-sized set of foam book support wedges needed in a whole day’s research.
Balliol College Archives & Manuscripts and the Oxford Conservation Consortium recently completed a condition survey of all of Balliol’s medieval and early modern manuscript books, as well as a number of later items catalogued in the same series. (See RAB Mynors, Catalogue of the Manuscripts of Balliol College Oxford, OUP 1963.)
The survey of 497 items, ranging from single sheets and home made booklets of a few bifolia to palm leaves strung between wooden boards and huge bound volumes on parchment, took 39 sessions averaging 3 hours each (ca 120 hours total, more than 4 items per hour) over 29 weeks, from mid-January to the end of July 2014. The staff hours required were twice that, as each session required two people: a conservator handling the manuscripts and a Balliol staff member entering data into an Access database on the OCC laptop. This was a much more efficient use of the college’s OCC subscription time than having the conservator enter the data as well as assess the manuscripts. It also provided a once-in-a-career opportunity for Balliol Library staff, particularly the Archivist, who is responsible for the manuscripts, to become familiar with every manuscript in the collection, in some detail. Most of the data was entered by the Archivist, but all members of Library staff participated during the course of the survey, as did five members of OCC staff. The process was speeded up considerably by having the 10-15 items scheduled for each day’s session ready in advance and waiting on a trolley in the reading room when the conservator arrived.
Each item received an average of 15 minutes of assessment, but in practice it varied from 10-25 mins depending on the complexity and condition of the item. The survey template included sections for descriptions of each item and assessment of its current physical condition as well as recommended repair/conservation treatment: survey information (date seen and name of assessing conservator); physical dimensions; current boxing or other container; text block materials, binding type, cover and board materials; attachments and supports, sewing, endbands, fastenings, text block edges, binding decoration, labels or titles; condition of text block and its media; condition of binding (cover, boards, joints, sewing, endbands, labels); whether the volume had been rebound or rebacked; its overall condition or usability; any treatment required or recommended, including new or replacement preservation boxing/packaging; and any other notes.
- good lighting and seating, a large stable table
- large document trolley
- measuring tape
- conservator’s tools e.g. large tweezers, selection of dentistry tools!
- magnifying glass
- cold (LED) desk lamp
- foam wedge book supports of various sizes
- bone folders
- lead weight/snakes
- laptop for entering data
The template for the survey database was adapted for the Balliol survey into Access format from OCC’s existing Word document, which had been used for several previous similar surveys at other colleges. We also kept a paper copy of the form handy during survey sessions for easy reference to descriptors. It was pre-loaded with all the MSS numbers, short titles for identification and centuries of production. At the end of each session the updated database was copied to a memory stick and to the archivist’s networked drive.
Having the survey information in a database format, not only electronically searchable but also sortable, makes possible many of the future uses of the data listed below.
We found that while the template provided an excellent structure for focused investigations and vocabulary for nearly everything we needed to describe, it would have been useful to add a notes field rather than tick-boxes only for description of the writing materials. Most texts fell into the usual categories of iron-gall ink, black-brown ink, pigments etc, but we also found various types of ‘pencil’ in some of the medieval books, and modern inks, pencil and typescript in some of the modern mss. In some cases we noted these in the Notes field at the end, but more information would have been captured with another field in the writing materials section. The same applied to the Bindings description section, especially for some of the unusual amateur bindings and coverings. We began noting the number of binding supports partway through and found it a useful addition.
Data entry was done directly into the Table view of the Access database; this helped to keep investigations very focussed, as the Table view layout made it difficult for the data enterer to skip around between sections, but an Access user interface would give access to more fields at once and should be considered for future use. Some users might prefer to convert the database to Excel, and we have found it useful to extract and convert parts of it to Word for reports and printing.
Aside from the professional and custodial benefits to staff and the college, we all enjoyed this survey immensely! It was an exciting time of (re)discoveries in the collection and much learning for all involved.
Benefits and uses
1) The most obvious function of the survey is to inform conservation treatment priorities for the future, but it is far from the only one. For each manuscript, its current condition and recommended treatment will be balanced with its contents/research interest and likelihood of exhibition or teaching use. We have good data going back more than 10 years on the ‘research popularity’ of the manuscripts.
2) In addition to conservation treatments needed, the survey has identified basic important preservation improvements e.g. numerous mss are not yet boxed, or need wrappers inside their otherwise good acid-free envelopes
3) The survey acts as a shelf check of the manuscripts.
4) Although the manuscripts were catalogued by Mynors, some of the descriptions date from as early as the 1930s and many reflect Mynors’ own research interests, heavily biased toward the texts of western medieval books. The survey has helped to identify underdescribed manuscripts needing improved catalogue entries to serve the wider interests of students of codicology and the history of the book. Areas particularly needing improvement are descriptions of historic bindings, details of illumination and book decoration, early modern manuscripts and non-western manuscripts.
5) Electronic records make it easy to flag the manuscripts’ physical condition to potential users on our website, so it is clear in advance which need (extra) special care in handling and which (few) will not be produced to researchers in their present condition. This will inform staff handling and manuscript-specific instructions on handling to readers. Better handling will improve long term preservation by decreasing the likelihood of further damage.
6) Similarly, exhibition/loan requests can receive quick and detailed responses about the suitability of specific mss for display and particular considerations needed. Where necessary, treatments can be prioritised or alternative candidates found. Staff will be able to balance the physical exposure of manuscripts across the collection rather than repeatedly displaying the same few well-known and regularly requested ‘treasures’. Increasing the breadth of manuscripts displayed will lead to institutional appreciation of the collection as a whole rather than a set of highlights with an anonymous hinterland of unknown quality.
7) Staff can easily find FAQ statistics e.g. largest, smallest, oldest, unusual characteristics, shared features, authors, texts, dates; these will be useful for reports, teaching, outreach, displays and online features.
8) Improved staff/institutional knowledge of the whole collection has already led to use of some of the less-frequently consulted (and formerly less valued) manuscripts for teaching and school outreach purposes.
More benefits and further uses of the survey are still emerging:
- Conservators are adapting database template for use in similar surveys with other colleges.
- a research-experienced volunteer is gaining curatorial experience and starting improvements to descriptions of codicological and decorative features to support teaching, research and exhibition requirements (see (4) above).
A few survey numbers
- MSS surveyed: 497
- people involved: 9
- staff hours: ca. 240 (ca. 120 each Balliol and OCC)
- no. & % of mss in good condition: 211
- no. & % of mss in fair condition: 196 + 22 in ‘fair-to-good’ condition, indicating that some minor repairs would make the manuscript significantly safer to produce.
- no. & % of mss in poor condition: 38 + 24 in ‘fair-to-poor’ condition, usually meaning that one of the boards is detached but the MS is in otherwise fair condition
- no. & % of mss in unusable condition: 6
- largest MS: two answers: largest volume MS 228, dimensions 480x350x125 mm, vol 0.021 m3; and largest boards MS 174, dimensions 480x370x090 mm, vol 0.0159 m3 .
- smallest MS: MS 378, a book of prayers in Ethiopic, written on parchment with wooden boards and a nice example of Coptic binding. It measures 081x062x035 mm.
- oldest MS: MS 306, part of which is a 10th century copy of a text by Boethius
Have a look at our conservation survey series of posts for more details of our discoveries! Still more to come…