As one of the oldest colleges in Oxford, Balliol has had since the 13th century to build up a significant and, at times, spectacular collection of books and documentary material. The development of these has been rather fitful as Balliol has often been relatively impecunious during its history, but intermittently a large donation would enrich the Library to the point where it was one of the leading libraries in Oxford.
Balliol’s 470+ manuscript volumes form one of the more important collections of manuscripts in an Oxbridge College. The first recorded book was given in 1276 (and remains in the collections). In the 15th century the Library was substantially enhanced by a gift from William Grey (d. 1478), Bishop of Ely, of “by far the finest, as well as the largest, private collection to survive in England from the Middle Ages” (R.W. Hunt in Victoria County Histories).
The transition of the College’s book collections to print was a relatively slow one owing to the strength of its manuscript collections. The College, however, still has a substantial collection of around 20,000 early printed books. These include the gift of 2000 volumes by Sir Thomas Wendy which arrived in 1677, and “by which addition, consisting chiefly of choice books, this Library is accounted one of the best in Oxon.” according to the chronicler Anthony Wood.
The College Archives retain the founding statutes in a document dating to 1282, and bearing the seal of Dervorguilla of Galloway, who was instrumental in the establishment of her husband’s College. Otherwise the Archives contain well over 10,000 items, covering all aspects of the College’s history from its earliest years to the present. The College also holds substantial collections of papers relating to many alumni with particular strengths in diplomacy and literature.
Currently the digitized items comprise volumes from the manuscript collections, digitized for the Early Manuscripts at Oxford project: several volumes of Fons Memorabilium, an illustrated 15th century encyclopedia by Domenico de Bandini; a copy of a section of the Domesday Book; and two early modern manuscripts. These latter are commonplace books, both enriched with 15th or 16th century lyrics, that of John Prise in Welsh, that of Richard Hill in English.