– 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 “preservation

guest post


Oxford, Balliol College, MS 200 p.1

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!

manuscripts boxing

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:DSCN9857

a surprisingly small package…


contains a certain number of boxes…


which are bigger on the inside than the outside! clever packing 🙂


contents, ready for boxing


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

the other type, a robust four-flap folder, for thinner, smaller and soft-back volumes


all done – another two dozen manuscripts safer on the shelf and during production!

conservation – manuscripts survey summary

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.

The survey

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.

Equipment required

  • 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 database

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.

Database suggestions

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 have a notes field as well as tick-boxes 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).
  • an academic researcher has been provided with the most complete list available to date  of all Balliol manuscripts within a date range containing illumination (in this case, decoration using pigments and metal e.g. gold leaf). The list derived for these criteria from the survey database is considerably longer than any comparable list yet in print.

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…

Handling archives and manuscripts

So far 2012 has been a busy one with many researchers visiting the Historic Collections Centre. I’ve observed varied technique – or lack thereof – for handling and supporting manuscript books, rare volumes and archives of various formats, and thought I would round up some of the most useful handling guidelines I could find. I’ll be adding them to the website as preparatory reading for all researchers. This will save me barking a lot of ‘Don’t!’s at visitors… Of course I suggest politely really, but the effect is often the same however considerately you break an hour’s silent concentration!

One thing I’ve observed is that researchers often rush when handling manuscripts. This is because they are in a hurry, and because they are excited about their investigations. It can be very damaging to the manuscripts. There are several things researchers should keep in mind:

  • This book is [x] centuries old. We want it to last [x] more centuries.
  • Damage is cumulative, so we need to minimise it during our brief curation or use of this manuscript.
  • Turn pages s*l*o*w*l*y and gently, from the middle of the edge as long as the text doesn’t go right to the edge
  • Avoid touching text, not only with your fingers but with lead weights or papers
  • Don’t lean on the book or push down on pages to make them open more. Think of what is happening to the binding.
  • It is not (usually) the parchment itself that is particularly fragile. It’s the inks and especially the binding.
  • Careful handling is free. Conservation repair work is extremely expensive.

It’s important to take the time to consider each item’s structure and individual needs for correct support – and not only when it first arrives at the desk. The shape of a book and the stresses within its structure change a great deal as the pages are turned, and supports may need to be moved several times during consultation.

The guidelines below concentrate on manuscript volumes, but include and often apply to other formats as well. None of them is complete (in my opinion) so it is important to look at several – or preferably all of them, they’re only short – to get the whole picture.

CAUTION if you’re using these in a library or other quiet area – some of the videos are silent (thanks, BL!) but others are not.

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.

Q & A – digitisation

Q: The manuscript scans on flickr are very exciting! Are there plans for a full systematic digitization? And do you take requests?

A: Thank you! Most of the medieval manuscript books have been microfilmed over the years and I’m looking into digitisation of the microfilms in the first instance, as less invasive for the MSS. Whether we go ahead with that depends on cost and quality of the end product – I’m not convinced scratchy b/w films are worth it, but on the other hand most of our MSS are unornamented, so little information is lost in black and white.

Obviously digital images would be better (colour for one thing) and images like those on Early Images at Oxford for all the MSS would be the ideal, but there isn’t budget or time for that, so the digitisation I do so far is in reaction to specific scholarly requests (hence often partial) rather than systematic. It also depends on the physical state of the manuscript – we’re part of the Colleges Conservation Consortium but of course it’s a long process.

As far as digitising the archives is concerned, again it’s reactive rather than systematic and is subject to preservation considerations. After about 1550 many of the documents are bigger than A3, sometimes A2 or even bigger; they’ve always been stored folded down to A4 or smaller, and there’s just no way I can scan those. But the little medieval deeds, though several hundred years older, are generally easily scannable. It’s a question of time and priorities – eventually they would make an excellent basis for an online palaeography learning resource, as well as for the information they contain.

paper clips

Lately there has been a long thread on the Archives-NRA discussion list on the best kinds of paperclips to use on archive collections, and although I sympathise with the undoubted incredulity of the rest of the world that anyone could care two pins (or brass clips) about this kind of thing, I remembered that I wrote this in my first year of work as a qualified archivist, at Glasgow University Archives.

Brass, stainless steel or plastic paper clips?
A survey of advice on fasteners for paper collections

A survey of advice from a variety of sources including Conservation Online, including their discussion list for conservation professionals and recommended external links, the National Preservation Office and the National Archives revealed the following:

Paper clips
The National Preservation Office says in its Basic Handling Practice leaflet that ‘Pressure tapes, metal or plastic fasteners such as paper clips and pins should never be used, and must be removed by trained staff.’ The use of any paper clips at all is a compromise; the best way of keeping a small set of papers together is to put them in an acid-free paper folder or enclosure, but if there are many of these sets, the extra paper takes up a lot more space. Another point against using fasteners of any kind is the difficulty of getting readers to use them properly: systematically removing them one by one to examine individual papers (rather than folding them back on each other, bending and folding papers and risking tears and further damage) and similarly putting them back!

Several sources recommend as a safer alternative, although not ideal, stainless steel paper clips with a slip of acid-free paper between the clip and the documents. This prevents direct damage e.g. rust from the metal clip but would be fiddly to implement and difficult to enforce with users. The increased use of acid-free paper would partially offset the overall lower cost of stainless steel paper clips. This option tends to be recommended by sources in the U.S.A., who seem to use mostly stainless steel or aluminium paper clips rather than either plastic or brass.

Other fasteners

Archival fabric tape is also an unacceptable way of keeping bundles of papers together as it causes immediate stress and tearing on the outer edges of the documents, the tape tends to be used to remove bundles from the box, users are often not careful enough about how they undo it, and further damage may be caused by retying the tape too tightly. Papers in a bundle are often not exactly the same size, which exacerbates the problem. Bundles of papers, leaflets etc. too big for a paper clip should be kept together by a paper or card folder or enclosure, as should any particularly fragile papers. The folder can then be secured with fabric tape if necessary. I should perhaps mention that all the sources I consulted were unanimous and emphatic in stating that the use of any pressure-sensitive tape, including ‘archival’ or ‘conservation’ repair tape, for mending tears in paper, is not advisable.

Metal pins rust, make holes in paper, cause wrinkles and are a safety hazard. They must be removed – this is often difficult in cases where rust is holding a number of sheets together. Treasury tags, often used to hold larger numbers of papers together in one corner, are also unacceptable – they require making a hole in each sheet and do not hold the sheets in a stack, so that it is easy for them to fall and tear during handling.

Plastic clips
Plastic clips, and Plastiklips are mentioned specifically, are cited by Conservation Online discussions as causing more bending and crimping of paper than metal paper clips. These indentations will eventually lead to tears. They may also offgas in the event of a fire; a more ordinary risk is that they will break, either actually tearing the paper or allowing it to slosh about in the box or fall on the floor when accessed. Plastic tends to degrade over time and will become brittle. Also, plastic clips cannot be bent to adjust to slightly thicker groups of papers and will simply exert more pressure, increasing both damage to the papers and the likelihood of the clips breaking. Plastiklips expand a bit but this expansion exposes the papers to another set of edges, causing more crimping. They are no less likely to cause tearing when attached or removed than properly made metal clips. Plastiklips are significantly thicker than most metal paper clips and even when the placement of clips along the top edge (the safest place as it will be noticed immediately) is staggered, cause uneven stacking of papers in boxes or folders, leading to possible damage and wasted space.

Brass paper clips
The HMC’s Standing Conference on Archives and Museums specifically recommends the use of brass paperclips, and the Conservation Online discussion group cites their use as standard European practice. They are inert and will not rust, break or become brittle. Use of any paper clip is a compromise, but where it is necessary or practically expedient solid brass paper clips are the best option.

-Anna Sander, 15 April 2004

2013 update: another article on choosing the right archival fasteners! by Beth Doyle, a conservator at Duke University Libraries.
Selected sources
Conservation On-line Discussion List


Museum Management Program (U.S.A.) Conserve-o-grams
19.5 Removing original fasteners from archival documents
19.6 Attachments for multi-page historic documents

Northeast Document Conservation Center. ‘Preservation 101: an online course.’

NPO. ‘Good handling principles and practice for library and archive materials.’

Oxford University Library Preservation Services

Smithsonian Centre for Materials Research and Education. RELACT: ‘Basic handling guidelines for paper artefacts.’

UNESCO. ‘The education of staff and users for the proper handling of archival materials: a RAMP study with guidelines.’