– 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 “teaching

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

MSt Session on Early Printed Books


Post by Rachel McDonald, Assistant Librarian

On Tuesday, Balliol’s Historic Collections Centre at St Cross Church hosted a session on early printed books for students on Oxford’s MSt programme in English Literature 1550-1700, specifically the course on ‘Bibliography, Theories of Text, History of the Book, Manuscript Studies’.  The session was led by Dr Adam Smyth and the books on display were chosen for the manuscript interventions that they contain, which evidence readers’ interaction with the texts and the actual physical books.  They included:

  • A 1633 edition of Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia (also containing The Defence of Poesie and Astrophel and Stella), with scraps of manuscript music in the binding and an ink geometrical diagram on the front free endleaf;
  • Margaret Cavendish’s Poems, and Phancies (1664) with four lines of verse in ink on the inside upper board;
  • A volume from the extensive tract collection of Nicholas Crouch (student and fellow of the College, 1634-1690) containing pamphlets on natural wonders such as floods and earthquakes, alongside pamphlets detailing murders and other news items!

manuscript annotation in Balliol’s copy of Margaret Cavendish’s poems, as above.

As well as supporting the students’ studies in a very obvious and tangible way – yes, the students were allowed to handle the books! – the session provided them with an insight into the practicalities of academic research in this field.  Like some of the items on display, there is much early printed material in college libraries that is uncatalogued or, at the very best, under-catalogued.  Fiona (Acting Librarian) encouraged the students to take advantage of the expertise and knowledge of College Librarians, and warned against relying on SOLO for a definitive answer to all college collection enquiries.