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MARCO SOLO: Manuscripts and Archives at Oxford University

Although unnoticed by many students and tutors alike, a revolutionary new service by the name of MARCO was unveiled last week, taking the archivist world by storm. I was lucky enough to attend the launch event at the Bodleian archives, one humble student amidst a flock of archivists and librarians from all over the university.

There’s nothing the Bodleian staff hold so dear as an acronym, hence MARCO. But so everyone reading can fully appreciate the new amenity, it seems appropriate to explain what is stands for – Manuscripts and Archives at Oxford University. It’s a website combining eleven of the Bodleian’s existing manuscript catalogue sources (such as the disparate ‘Bodleian Archives and Manuscripts’, ‘Western Medieval Manuscripts’ and ‘South Asian Manuscripts’) into one, easy-to-navigate system. Students familiar with SOLO will recognise its hallmark as the colour blue; following this trend, MARCO’s signature colour is purple. You’ll know you’re in the right place if the page looks like a lavender farm. Mind you, it isn’t only university archives being collated, but college ones too. Inter-college collaboration is much easier as a result, since the wide range of historic manuscripts held within various college archives are much easier to access.
Archivists are the unacknowledged legislators of the university: despite being one of its backbones, we pay them little mind. Think about how soul-crushing work would be, regardless of whether you do a STEM or Humanities degree, if there was no rhyme or reason to how the documents you needed were arranged. But the archivists are at hand! It is they who provide order amidst the chaos and are always coming up with better ways to keep knowledge organised.
I had the privilege of chatting briefly with my college’s archivist before the event, in order to get an idea of the problems this service was trying to remedy. He informed me that looking for manuscripts is essentially the bane of an archivist’s existence. Manuscript manuals are tricky to navigate, full of inconvenient omissions and constantly in need of updates. These hurdles aren’t the exclusive concern of archivists, though. Students also suffer from manuscript archives being clunky and circuitous – just ask anyone doing a dissertation! A better system benefits everyone at the university, whether they’re students, tutors, archivists or researchers.

MARCO will be a boon to anyone who wants to access manuscripts, whether they attend Oxford or not. As one of the speakers aptly put, it is a way of democratising access to manuscripts as no previous training or proficiency is required. That being said, while making archives easier to navigate, some complexity is necessary to maintain the different priorities each archive has. It’s something I hadn’t thought about before, but makes sense: as different archives focus on distinct places and diverse periods of history, any documents in common must be considered from unique angles. Rather than trying to be some universal lone archive, MARCO is instead a collation of all the different archives any document is in, ensuring the organisation of every field.
Though archives might not be one of your major concerns right now, whenever your course requires you to brave them for the first time, you’ll be glad people went to the trouble of making it as easy and intuitive to navigate as possible. We’re very lucky indeed to have a group of such dedicated and friendly experts on hand. To the unsung archivists!

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