– 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 “research

new blog!

a1spine-labels-medical-crop1

Balliol College Library‘s early printed books blog is up and running! Tune in all year for posts by project staff Lucy and Nikki on the Reconstructing Nicholas Crouch cataloguing & conservation project:https://balliollibrary.wordpress.com/. There’s a link in the menu bar at right as well.


reading closely

tcd1An interesting enquiry from last year, demonstrating that the internet is a brilliant research tool, but that like any source it needs careful interpretation, and that not all immediately available information is correct or complete.

The enquirer requests information on William Hussey 1867-1939, son of Thomas Hussey of Kensington, stating that the images sent with the enquiry, of a Ladies’ Challenge Cup medal,  clearly show that WH rowed for Balliol when they won that particular race in 1891.

The enquirer has probably searched for something like ‘ladies challenge cup 1891’ and found the Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ladies’_Challenge_Plate for the Henley Regatta’s Ladies’ Challenge Plate race, won by a Balliol crew in 1891, and concluded that Hussey must have been part of this crew.

In fact the medal shows nothing of the kind, and a closer look reveals quite a different story.

First I checked whether William Hussey had indeed been a member of Balliol – the college registers are not 100% infallible, but they are pretty good. No result, so back to the medal for other clues. A little more scratching around online revealed several things that didn’t add up to support the Henley & Balliol assumption:

  • Date: Henley is always held over the first weekend in July, but 1 July 1891 was a Wednesday. (thanks Time and Date!)tcd2
  • Race name: the Ladies’ Challenge Plate race at Henley has never been known as the Ladies’ Challenge Cup – it is the only Henley trophy that isn’t the Something Cup.
  • Winner name: the LCP is an Eights race, not an individual one, so even if each member of the winning Eight had a commemorative medal, it would not be inscribed ‘won by [any single name]’. Cf. Henley commemorative medals at http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/18783/lot/59/, a particularly nice find after searching for images of the LCP medals for visual comparison.
  • Double-checking with another source – even supposing everything else was somehow wrong, we have a photograph of the Balliol Eight that did win the LCP in 1891; the rowers were: Rofe, Rawstone, Darbishire, Mountmorres, Fielding, T Rogers, Farmer, F Rogers, cox Craig-Sellar. Not surprisingly, no Hussey.

So if it was not at all connected with the Henley Royal Regatta or Balliol’s win there in 1891, what is this medal? Balliol-based evidence stops here, but ‘we have no further information about this’ seemed a bit abrupt when most of what I had already found out was from non-Balliol sources anyway. Besides, by this time I wanted an answer to the puzzle, if I could find one!

Look at it again – the intertwined letters on the medal look like T C D, in a distinctively Irish style, and Trinity College Dublin’s Regatta does include a Ladies’ Challenge Cup race. But to check up further, one might try looking at the club’s own site: http://www.tcdlife.ie/clubs/boat/archive.php. The answer is probably in Raymond Blake’s book, In Black and White: A History of Rowing at Trinity
College Dublin
. My research ends here; I can’t spend any more time on this enquiry, and the answer won’t add to knowledge of the Balliol archives.

And there are still questions: why should the medal read TCD when TCD’s boat club has been known as the Dublin University Boat Club since 1847? Is the DUBC (TCD) Ladies’ Challenge Cup race rowed by singles or eights? Is there any evidence at all that this is a rowing medal?

It’s rare that answers to archival enquiries are either complete or absolute – often, the best we can hope for is to add another interesting piece to the puzzle, or point in another direction.


Guest post – Farewell to the Library chairs

Welcome to our second guest poster, Mary Addison!

This post was originally published by Mary Addison on 16 November 2013 at http://www.addisonembroideryatthevicarage.co.uk/2013/11/16/farewell-to-the-library-chairs/, and is reposted here with the author’s kind permission.

libchairs01

Balliol library Chair 1950?-2013.

An Oxford college library is a wonderful place to work in but has lots of potential for distracting staff away from library housekeeping. Not only are the books an ever present source of temptation but the buildings and fittings themselves constantly vie to catch your attention – from the acanthus leaves carved into the top of oak bookcases (James Wyatt 1791-4), the ceiling bosses (also late C18th and including simple circlets of leaves, a green man and an ourobouros – the coiled self-devouring serpent ) to the bits of medieval stained glass which, in Balliol Library, include the earliest representation of the coat of arms now universally recognised as that of the university itself.

libchairs02

Balliol College Library: Photograph of 1962 of the New Library (now known as the Reading Room)

The Arts and Crafts style oak chairs, a variant on the Windsor chair, were also a striking presence.  Over the years broken spindles and legs have been repaired by the college workshop and until recently there always seemed to be enough spare parts. Over the last year, however, it had become increasingly apparent that new chairs were needed … and imminently.

libchairs03

Balliol College Library: old library chair with cushions

A supplier and style of chairs were chosen – an arcane process done behind closed doors and probably involving smoke, mirrors, hot towels, and baton changes as the Librarian, rather like Dr Who, went through several manifestations (Librarian/Acting Librarian/Librarian/Acting Librarian covering for the Librarian on maternity leave – all within 6 months). Surprisingly quickly a prototype appeared and took its place in the library accompanied by a box for comments.

libchairs04

Balliol College Library: The Old Library with the new chair (2013)

At first, armed with my dislike of the idea of change, I  thought there was too much of the G-Plan domestic dining room chair of the 60s about them but closer inspection revealed they were sturdy with well-made joints, very generously sized, had comfortable seats and back rests in well padded leather. They were quite – but not too – heavy, so no rocking  back on the 2 back legs with these chairs.

libchairs05

Balliol College Library: the Reading Room with the old chairs

libchairs06

Balliol College Library: the Reading Room with the new chairs

I dreaded the changeover. I had loved the old style chairs which brought with them a whiff of the country house style of the early 1930s. On the day of the swop over, those of us not involved in the logistics of chair moving kept to our lower library lair and out of the way as an enfilade of the old chairs were marched through the middle of our office on their way to temporary storage in the annexe.

libchairs07

Balliol College Library: the Old Library with the old chair

libchairs08

Balliol College Library: the Old Library with the new chair

The new chairs came in 3 lots and after the first batch were in place in the Old Library (1791 but in part going back to early C15) I emerged with some trepidation and a slightly heavy heart to survey the new character of the library. But the funny thing was, although my critical faculties were poised for attack and my aesthetic sensibilities were ready to take a bruising, the library looked little different from before. Excellent.

libchairs09

Balliol College Library: 1928 design

The practical advantages also became apparent very quickly.  While the old chairs were mainly loved for their looks, the increased comfort of the new chairs wheedled its way into the students’ hearts. Indeed,  suddenly people remembered how the the spindles on the back of the old chairs were a torment and how the oak seat, though hollowed out in an attempt at bottom friendliness, needed more than one of the custom-made cushions which albeit in plentiful supply had got thinner and thinner with age. Now, girls (usually) could be seen working with their legs tucked up into the chair and one or two people even fell asleep with head lolling on the back rest (as opposed to slumped on the table in front).  (Were they too comfortable?) Bags could be hooked more easily over the back of the chair which should help keep the floor free of at least some personal belongings. From our point of view each chair occupied a smaller floor area and the arms slipped under more of the desks and tables; even shelving books was easier.  People liked them. What a relief.

libchairs10

Balliol College Library: Library chair 1950?-2013

The old library chairs had been part of the library for about 80 years, which sounds pretty amazing for a set of chairs. All of the ones we replaced must have been more than 50 years old as they appear in a photograph of 1962 when the mezzanine was put in to make the Reading Room (see above) as we know it today. (It was originally the dining hall until a new one was built by Waterhouse in the C19th). The College Archivist did some rootling around in her archives and came up with an original order and drawings for a similar chair dating from 1928. Hand annotation on these papers indicate certain modifications were to be carried out and that further amendments could also be made. In fact there were considerable changes. The carved Catherine Wheel (St.Catherine is the college’s patron saint) disappeared as did the little table top going across the arms at the front. Our chair has slightly more elegant legs and the design origins in the Windsor chair are also more apparent. Indeed, virtually the only design element linking our chairs with the 1928 drawing is the very unusual curve of the arm when viewed from the side, but this feature is so distinctive as to make me feel certain that chair and drawing have a familial relationship. The Archivist suggests that there may be further drawings and letters in amongst college documents which might resolve these issues and give us a firmer date for the chairs’ first appearance. Such research is tempting but at the moment it is not a high priority project.

libchairs11

Balliol College Library 1959 (Before major internal reorganisation) with old library chair

We were all fascinated that the firm supplying the 1928 chairs and the joinery was based in St Aldates. If there was a workshop, the company must have occupied quite a big footprint and as yet we haven’t worked out quite where. Much land there belongs to Christ Church and buildings may have been converted for different use, knocked down or may even still be there but behind buildings fronting on to the road. This is also another area for further research. If anyone knows anything about it, we would love to hear from you.

DSCN7403a

A letter of tender (26/10/1928) for Balliol Library chairs from Thomas S Bott, shop-fitter, display case maker, proprietor of machine joinery works under his name at 35 St Aldates, Oxford.

libchairs12

Balliol College Library: a corner of the Reading Room with old library chairs

libchairs13

Balliol College Library: corner of the Reading Room with new library chairs


Lunchtime talk: Unlocking the Archives 2

Announcing the second talk in our new series about research in Balliol’s special collections:

MS236-f001rda

John Bray, Limner-Binder, and Three Sequences of Manuscripts Made in Oxford (1450-84)

Holly James-Maddocks, University of York

This paper identifies the hand of one Oxford-based illuminator (John Bray, d.1493) in three sequences of manuscripts housed today in Balliol, Merton, and Exeter Colleges. His collaboration with four London illuminators for their production prompts an assessment of the evidence for peripatetic book artisans and for the reliance of the Oxford trade on the supply of London labour.

Holly James-Maddocks is a PhD student at the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York, completing the thesis ‘Collaborative Book Production: Scribes and Illuminators in Fifteenth-Century London’. She will continue her studies of the London book trade as the Katharine F. Pantzer Jr. Fellow in Descriptive Bibliography at Harvard University’s Houghton Library in 2013-14.

* * *

When: Friday 26 April, 1-2 pm

Where: Balliol Historic Collections Centre, St Cross Church, Manor Road (next to Holywell Manor).

Who: all welcome

Feel free to bring your lunch. The talk will last no more than half an hour, to allow time for questions and discussion afterwards, and a closer look at some of the Balliol MSS discussed.

Unlocking the Archives is a new series of talks opening up the college’s archives and manuscripts to a wider audience and future researchers, given by scholars from Oxford and around the world about their work on material from Balliol’s special collections.

More Unlocking Archives dates for your calendars:

  • 24 May: Dr Stephen Golding (Univ, Radiology) on researching the first history of the ‘Chalet des Anglais’
  • 20 June: Dr Robin Darwall-Smith (archivist, Magdalen & Univ) on cataloguing the papers of Benjamin Jowett at Balliol

= = = = = = = =

2 April update: Many thanks to Holly for a fascinating paper! It will be presented to another audience at a later date, and, we hope, the new research (and perhaps photographs) will be published as well, so no summary here. Stay tuned!


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!)

Q&A: founders’ kin

Q: I believe I’m a descendant of the Balliols; how can I find out more about the family?

A: We have some Balliol family history and a list of sources for further reading on the Founders page. Caution: the Balliol name in the founders’ line died out in the Middle Ages, and not all Baileys are descended from the Balliols.


Q&A – complaints and returns department

Q: Your response to my enquiry is not what I hoped for. Please check the records again and give me a different answer.

A: Readers may be astonished to learn that I regularly receive this professional insult, generally in response to a negative result of a search for an individual possible member of Balliol. As all researchers know, to be certain of a negative result normally requires considerably more research than to confirm a positive, which may only need checking one source. In order to be sure that no record of an individual exists, one has to check several series of potentially relevant records.  I will then do my best to provide possible explanations for the lack of evidence, and to suggest further avenues of enquiry.

Enquirers are kindly requested not to ask me to research an enquiry again unless additional relevant substantive information is provided which was not included in the original question.

If I am not overly forthcoming in my explanations, it may be because I know that enquirers do not wish to hear, unless they are true researchers as well as family historians, that the information they have has probably been fabricated, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, in knowledge or in ignorance, by misleading, misinterpretation or misunderstanding. In the majority of cases it happens through garbling of family narrative down the generations rather than deliberate deceit, but the latter is not unknown either.

If I am asked to reply to the same enquiry again, I may do so, pulling the enquiry to bits and pointing out the full range of inconsistencies and impossibilities inherent in it.  I will also be frank about any evidence of deliberate fabrications; they do exist. This is constructive for the researcher, but not always pleasant.

I often feel that I am a professional exploder of family myths, but I take some little consolation in the knowledge that if my well informed, carefully researched and considered responses to enquiries are not quite the ones the enquirers expect, they will simply be dismissed, and the myths remain intact.