Libraries and the Arts | The British Film Institute (BFI) Reuben Library and The Hayward Gallery | Southbank, LDN | Part ONE

British Film Institute (BFI) Reuben Library

We arrived in Southbank, surrounded by an abundance of museums and galleries. The Houses of Parliament dominated the cityscape and looked down upon us as we embarked on our adventure. London is a well-known cove of national treasures, and this was certainly another enlightening library visit for us!

We spent our morning visiting the British Film Institute (BFI) Reuben Library. We were warmly greeted by the BFI Librarian who ushered us in via the Box Office entrance and into the Edwin Fox Reading Room. It was before opening time, and the atmosphere felt cinematic as we gathered around in low lighting to watch a private screening exploring the history of the BFI and its library. It is well known that the British Film Institute is the UK’s lead organisation for film and the moving image, and we were beyond excited to learn more about what services the library provides and its daily operations.

We discovered that the BFI was founded in 1933 and affords film funding across the UK to support with distribution and production. The BFI’s Reuben library was open just 1 year after the BFI was established in 1934. The BFI library can best be described as a record of British life through moving images, film, and TV. It is completely free to access, with no payment needed or membership fees required from the public; all are welcome to enjoy the library and its resources.

The BFI Catalogue boasts over 800,000 film titles, with half of it being stored in the archive collection. It features the largest and oldest collection of moving images in the world, providing a distinctive collection of the UK’s historical heritage. The collections span across three locations at the BFI’s Reading Room and Closed Access Stack Area here at Southbank, and the National Archives at Berkhamsted. The items in the collection are for reference use only, providing access to approximately 50,000 books. Any requests from the archives are delivered to the reading room for readers to access.

Our host explained to us that there is also a wide variety of materials included in the collection, ranging from high-academic literature to celebrity film gossip which we were able to see on display throughout the reading room. The collection contains literature from the worldwide film industry. There are over 5,000 journal titles, with the oldest journal dating back to 1899 Optical Magic and all the way up to modern journals such as Screen International. In addition, the BFI contains a vast amount of digitized press cuttings which are accessible for viewing on site. It was interesting to learn about the Film Festival catalogue collections which are held in the archives, many posters/adverts of independent and international festivals are maintained here along with the press cuttings to add social context around the time of the festival. All of this information has been collected since the library opened in 1934.

After the presentation, we had some time to explore the Edwin Fox Foundation Reading Room. The room is open to anyone and includes a formal study area, free Wi-Fi, digital scanners to access information held on microfiche and roll film and book scanners. Bound journals aligned the walls and many of their displays are within the reading room. There also several public access research terminals so people can access the online digital resources held within the BFI collection and searching the databases. The BFI also features a digital library on demand, which has an international userbase, and provides electronic document delivery services for digitized book chapters and journal articles.

After we finished exploring the Reading Room, we were taken to the Mediatheque space. The large space was full of private booths with screens and headsets, and again, it is 100% free space to access and open to the public, there is no booking required. Here, members of the public can access an abundance of digital content whether it be for research or entertainment purposes. 

We were keen to learn how the Mediatheque works. To begin our exploration of the Mediatheque, we all chose a booth and used the touch screen to start our viewings.  Headphones are provided and people can also bring their own headsets if they preferred. Searching through the mediatheque we discovered some truly rare and iconic British TV. I discovered a snippet of film dated 1914, titled the Burgh of Falkirk Royal Visit. Watching this video offered a glimpse into history and revealed all the enthusiasm within the community of Falkirk during a visit by the King. Soldiers exalted their combat helmets on top of their bayonets; the video emphasised a strong desire to be seen by George V.

In addition to historic TV which dates to Victorian and Edwardian eras; the mediatheque also offered an opportunity for people to explore Britian on film throughout the decades. Also viewable to watch were modern favourites including prime TV dramas, game shows, or current affairs of the time. A fun use of this space is often used by parents who bring their children into the mediatheque to show them nostalgic TV shows and reminisce. Within the mediatheque, the BFI hosts curated collections such as Brit Chic (fashion), AIDS on screen and Powell and Pressburger for the public to explore.

We spent some time with our host for a sit-down and informal chat. We learned that the BFI is very protective of its unique collection and there are ongoing film preservation projects including the restoration of the first documentary expedition of Ernst Shackleton, Epic of the Antarctic. There is an ongoing program called Heritage 20 which is a massive digitization program. It was identified that the standards of preservation and video tape in storage have largely stayed the same throughout since the time of invention until different types of video tape became available in more recent decades. As the standards have not changed much for film storage since it was created, these more recent films are at risk of damage due to the variety of tapes and are now being cared for based on their individual needs.

Our last stop on our BFI tour would be a visit to the basement to explore the library material which is in the Closed Access Stack area. We descended to the basement of the BFI where an extensive collection of film and tv literature is held here in storage. If members of the public are requiring access to these resources, items are typically requested in advance and then made available in the reading room for the visitor to access.  Microfilm and journals are also held in the stored collection. We spent some time browsing the shelves to see what cinematic readings we could find. I particularly loved looking at the abundance of screenplays, including the Dark Knight Trilogy. It was fascinating to see the foundational design for the visual narrative including detailed artwork and descriptions of scenes, character interactions and other key visual elements including symbology. Other items of interest included a very retro book on make-up for cinema; vintage advertisements of Max – Factor were included and emphasised how much cinema would have influenced culture in terms of fashion and beauty standards. Our time at the BFI with our wonderful host came to an end. It was inspirational to discover the symbiotic relationship between libraries and the visual arts.

Hayward Gallery Library

Our day in Southbank would not have been complete without a visit to the Hayward Gallery. Contained within the Southbank centre, we entered the library through the bustling warehouse entrance where precious artwork was being packaged, stored, and made ready for transit.

We were hosted by Hayward Gallery’s friendly librarian who explained that the collection’s primary use is for curators who wish to research resources for upcoming exhibitions. With over 25,000 titles, the collection within the Hayward Gallery library reflects a variety of subjects on contemporary British and international art. It includes literature on artists, architecture, drawings, sculptures, and photography. The library also contains resources on gallery exhibitions and critical art theory.  

 We spent time browsing the shelves and a careful selection of books which the librarian had chosen. Some of the books were focused on previous exhibitions hosted at the Hayward gallery.  There were no current exhibitions during our visit but there was a book showcasing the one prior to our arrival titled When Form Comes Alive. This was a modern sculpture exhibit where artists were showcasing movement. The sculptures were incredibly large and would be useful for curators to reference in the future when designing their space.

Within the library, there was a display model of an upcoming exhibition. We were able to see how the planning and blueprint of a curator’s design and understand the importance of flow, continuity, and space when displaying an artist’s work for an exhibit. At the Hayward Gallery, all the exhibits focus on a single artist and the library collection also serves as a historical catalogue of the exhibits hosted within the gallery.   The library also contains visual materials such as photographs, press cuttings, posters, and exhibition guides. Archives of material for the gallery are kept off site.

We spent time examining beautiful photographic books detailing previous exhibitions hosted at Hayward and the works of many talented artists before our visit came to an end with Hayward’s friendly librarian.

We reflected on our time in Southbank which had come full circle, starting with libraries focusing on the moving image and ending with the visual arts and exhibit curation. We now know how both the BFI and Hayward Gallery library focus play a critical role in preserving art history, our heritage and ensures accessibility through knowledge sharing and conservation. We left with a deep sense of gratitude for our Southbank visits and our wonderful library hosts.

Pssst! Be sure to check out our upcoming post on our visit The National Poetry Gallery in Southbank. If you are a poetry enthusiast, it is a library visit not to be missed!

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