We know that researchers coming to Oxford College archives may have many initial questions to ask of us. We have brought together some of the questions we are most frequently asked, with some answers which we hope will help you.

Further information on what to expect during a visit and advice from librarians and archivists from across Oxford is also available in this video, produced by the Librarian of Balliol College.

Accessing special collections in Oxford college libraries and archives


Yes, to both!  The college archives are all open to all researchers.  However, the archivists do not always work full-time, and space is usually very limited, so you will need to arrange your visit in advance.  Contact details and opening hours are available on the Colleges pages.  You may need to provide some sort of identification or a reference, and you will probably be asked to sign a visitors’ book and, if you are working on modern papers, a form to say that you will abide by the terms of the Data Protection Act.  There should be no problem with using a lap-top computer but, if you prefer the old-fashioned ways, then pencils rather than pens!  Photocopying and photographing is often possible but this is entirely at the discretion of the archivist. It also depends on the condition of the document, and the copyright laws.

Usually, not very much!  Some enquirers find this surprising but just consider how much (or how little) information your school holds about you.  The first port of call for information on anyone who was up at Oxford between 1500 and 1892 is Joseph Foster’s  Alumni Oxonienses which gives brief details, compiled from the University’s registers, of all matriculated members of the University.  Most large libraries should have a copy.  The companion volumes for Cambridge are Venn’s Alumni Cantabrigienses.

It is most unlikely that you will find any details of mothers, wives, or sisters.  Women didn’t feature very strongly in pre-20th century Oxford!  Try the International Genealogical Index on-line (see Links).  It will also be unusual to find dates of birth, essays or dissertations, or examination results.

If your ancestor was famous, try the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography or even Who was Who. The vast majority of Oxford graduates, until the 20th century, became clergymen so it may be worth looking at the published Clergy Lists and their  successor volumes, Crockfords, as the database of Church of England Clergy (see Links).

Depending on the period your ancestor was alive, college archives should be able to confirm the information in Foster and, possibly, add some information about their career in obituary in a college magazine. college and their first posting on going down.  For more recent men, you may find an obituary in a college magazine or published in a newspaper. If your ancestor was a senior member of the college, there may be a portrait.  These are described in Mrs Lane-Poole’s Portraits in the Colleges and Halls (1926).   Some colleges have their own printed registers of alumni. The archivists are bound by the terms of the Data Protection Act so we are not allowed to give out information on living members without their permission, and we must show discretion about the records of recently deceased alumni.


Up until the beginning of the 19th century, there was really only one undergraduate degree.  Most students studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree which included classical texts in both Latin and Greek, mathematics, geometry, philosophy, and theology.  Although mathematics was introduced as a separate subject in 1805 (Robert Peel was the first man to take a double first in classics and maths in 1808), it was the middle of the 1800s before individual subjects began to appear on the curriculum.  Classics (or Literae Humaniores) and Maths were joined by Natural Science in 1850, Jurisprudence and Modern History in 1851, and Theology in 1871.  Degrees in some subjects, like Geography and Modern Languages, did not appear in the prospectus until well into the 20th century.

Music and medicine have always been available as specialist subjects but the early study of music was oddly separate from the usual system, and medicine was a post-BA subject.  Law, although it was studied in Oxford before the 19th century, required special permission from a student’s college for a man to divert his attentions from the ‘normal’ course of study.


Matriculation is the formal admittance of a student to the University.  The ceremony, which is very brief, takes place in the Sheldonian Theatre, the ceremonial hall of the University, at the beginning of the academic year in October.  Colleges have their own internal matriculation as well when new students are given basic information to start their time in Oxford.

Unlike a campus university, Oxford is made up of 38 independent colleges under the umbrella of the University of Oxford.  The colleges provide board and lodging, and tuition for their own students, and all have their own libraries, computing facilities, seminar rooms, dining halls, etc.  The University is the degree-giving institution, and administers all the faculties, University Libraries (including the Bodleian Library), central computing facilities, etc.  University and college buildings are scattered throughout the city.

The University Archives (see Links) hold the administrative records of the University.  It is here that you will find the original matriculation registers, papers on the management of the faculties and departments, and records of the financial administration of the University.  You probably won’t find material on University clubs and societies; these will either be with the club itself (if it still exists) or in the Bodleian Library’s Department of Western Manuscripts, or at the Oxfordshire Record Office.  If you are unable to find what you want in the University or the collegiate archives, it is always worth asking the Bodleian; there are many papers there relating particularly to the older colleges.


It is unlikely that there will be very much, but it does depend on the period.  Most of the colleges will have runs of accounts going back to quite early times which should at least record the name and the wage of any college employee, but personnel files did not exist until very recently.  Be aware, too, that we are unable to release any details of anyone still alive, or any records which may trouble the families of employees.

Many colleges hold extensive records of their estates and tenants.  It may be possible to identify the principal occupiers of your house, and to establish that a house was on the site at date 'x', but records rarely tell us exactly when an individual property was built, although there are occasionally references to repairs.  Be warned that most college’s estates were let out to a single, often aristocratic, tenant, and then were sub-let.  It is rare to find the records of sub-tenants.  Such research can be time consuming and the enquirer should be prepared to visit the archive and undertake the research in person.

The older colleges were often patrons or rectors of parishes in all parts of England and Wales, and the tithes that were received were an important part of a college’s income.  Frequently the vicars, who were often alumni of the patronal college, requested assistance with repairs and rebuilding of their church, their rectory, or the parish school.  You can find details of clergymen in all sorts of published works and on-line (see Links and Bibliography).  If your church was built or altered in the nineteenth century, there may be a plan on the web-site Church Plans On-line.  Changes of all sorts had to have permission from the diocese, so you may find a ‘faculty’ in the diocesan records in your County Record Office.

The older colleges usually had landed estates which provided them with their revenue.  Consequently, they often hold maps and plans, sometimes from quite early dates.  A good place to look is the Dictionary of Land Surveyors and Local Mapmakers, 1530 - 1850, edited by Sarah Bendall but, if you know that a college had an interest in a particular parish, it is always worth asking.  Architectural plans, either of buildings on college estates or of the college itself, can occasionally be found.

That depends! Some College archives do have extensive collections of personal papers, relating to former members of the College, but not all do; and some Colleges keep their collections of personal papers not in their archives, but in their libraries. So, if you are trying to find the correspondence of any individual, a starting point is through the "Discovery" section of the website of the National Archives. If you can’t find anything there, the chances are that there are none surviving, but it will be worth contacting the relevant college just in case the details have not yet made it to the NRA. Some college web-sites will list their most important collections, and some even have portions of their catalogues on line.

Unfortunately, opportunities for work experience, placements, internships, etc. are few in college and departmental archives.  Most archivists work alone and many are part-time so, much as we would like to, it is difficult to offer a meaningful experience and to meet legislative requirements.  The colleges that currently will consider applications are Pusey House and Exeter College (from Michaelmas 2024).  More will be added if this changes.  Most colleges are happy to offer a short tour of their archive to interested students.