The issues facing the British Film Institute National Library

MeCCSA position paper, January 2007

MeCCSA is the Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association is the HE subject association which represents academics and departments researching in film, television and related area in the UK. We present this paper as a contribution to the current debate and to stress the crucial importance of the collections which the British Film Institute currently manages.

Introduction

Following a strategic review in 2004, the British Film Institute (BFI) suggested that the BFI National Library (BFINL) might benefit financially from being brought closer to, and possibly re-housed by, a partner in the HE sector. Following concerns expressed by MeCCSA and others, MeCCSA was asked by the BFI to join a working group to look at the issue of how the BFINL might benefit from new partnerships and we welcomed that opportunity. Other parties represented in this group were the AHRC, British Library and HEFCE. The main issue under discussion was the feasibility of bringing the BFINL closer to what the BFI terms its “core constituency” in higher education. The value would be “increased access to a key user group, bringing in new investment and allowing the BFI to share the cost of provision” (BFI 2006:2.1).

In November 2006, after a study by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), the BFI told those in the group that they were minded to accept CILIP’s advice that a consortium of HEIs, with one as lead institution, should be awarded a partnership to work with the BFI. This partnership would aim to enhance the environment and experience for all Library users, on developing learning and knowledge archive aspects and formal learning modules, to develop joint research and publishing projects, to develop knowledge transfer and participation projects with HE partners and others, to add value to investment in a National Film Archive digital hub, increase the engagement between BFI curatorial staff and the academy, and to increase the take-up of film as an object of study and learning tool, securing media literacy as an essential learning skill.

The BFI’s decision is a response to short-term issues (BFI, 2006: section 4), and may involve temporary re-location for the BFINL (BFI, 5.7). We also recognise that the BFI’s rationale for proposing this change is financial, presumably as a response to immediate issues facing the BFINL of inadequate accommodation, resourcing and collection care, and the recognition that the BFI is facing cuts in real terms over the next several years, especially in the face of other priorities (BFI, 2006:section 4).

MeCCSA’s views

MeCCSA strongly welcomes the BFI’s general desire for a closer engagement with HE, and is delighted to note the evidence that this is already happening in practice; for example in digitisation projects and in outreach work by BFI staff in the sector. ‘The BFI’s role is to grow the value of specialist film’ (BFI 2006:1), and this is certainly in tune with the HE sector’s activities. However, there is a danger in confusing this aspiration with the need to solve the problems facing the BFINL. Solutions to these may be aligned with this desire for partnership, but they are not the same.

The BFINL is an internationally important library and archive of primary and secondary material documenting moving image culture, in the same way as the British Library (BL) is an important source for material in, say, English literature. It is the world’s largest collection of information about film and television (National Audit Office, 2003:7), and is a major national resource for the UK.

MeCCSA accepts that the BFI’s aims for partnership (BFI 2006:5.7) go some way towards recognising the importance of the BFINL as a central location for film learning. However we are concerned that the solution proposed does not help the BFI to fulfil one of its primary objects, the establishment, care and development of collections reflecting the moving image history and heritage of the UK (Royal Charter, 2000 section 2). The partnership aims noted above may be useful proposals for exploiting the collection, but do not address the core issues facing the BFINL. These are not just financial in terms of resource-based demands on existing holdings and the acquisition of material retrospectively but they concern how the nation collects, preserves and accesses different forms of documentation on the moving image in and for the future. With this proposal the BFI is seeking to draw in income for a range of new activities, and to re-draw the arrangements for existing ones, in relation to a core clientele. This is understandable, as a short-term response to the BFI’s financial problems. However, the quid pro quo is far from straightforward, and includes the following problematic arrangements:

  • The notion that a consortium of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) should partner the BFINL is based, correctly, on the recognition that HE users account for a significant level of use of the BFINL (5.3), and that therefore the HE funding councils might legitimately contribute to its cost. However, the idea of selective partnership, or of an HE partner housing the collection, translates this use into a different set of controls and drivers. Selected HEIs, and in particular the lead HEI, will have disproportionate power over the direction and management of the collections. This proposal loses sight of the BFINL as a national resource as, say the British Library is, and positions it as an HE resource. This is likely to prove problematic when developing national strategies for the moving image, which necessarily involve more than Higher Education.
  • There is also the problem of how to retrieve the BFINL from such an arrangement, later. The plan allows for the possibility that the proposed Film Centre may not go forward, the implication being that this partnership could be a longer-term backup plan. MeCCSA believes the BFINL is and should remain a national resource, in the same way as other museums and libraries created by and run for the nation. Coming under the wing of one HEI is likely to lead to absorption of many activities by the host, and thus a ‘temporary solution’ carries with it a danger of permanence.
  • It is clear that such an arrangement will involve a lead partner (BFI 2006, 5.5). This effectively returns to the original proposal of 2004, about which there was an outcry from HEIs. Whether there is one HEI, or a lead HEI, the net effect is that a national archival and information collection will privilege one university over others, particularly in the competition to attract funding and students. It is worth a considerable amount to a host HEI, but consequently runs the risk of drawing funding away from others. MeCCSA does not wish to see one HE institution become the de facto single base for film culture.
  • MeCCSA does not believe that the extension of the proposal to a consortium consisting of HEIs will necessarily mitigate this problem and could cause further complications. Instead it is likely to exacerbate it, as the partners seek to exploit their association with the host HEI. The arrangement is potentially divisive and unrepresentative. The value to members of that consortium includes a seat at a management or advisory table; the ability of those outside the consortium to raise issues of concern is reduced.
  • The announcement from the BFI refers to the probable location of the lead HEI as London (BFI, 2006 5.5). This is based on the argument that current users are mainly London-based. However, as the current location is London, this is hardly surprising; the argument is therefore circular and precludes any discussion of other appropriate locations. An opportunity to re-think what has been a long-term problem for non-London users is therefore lost and, in effect, the announcement excludes all except a handful of HEIs from leading a bid. MeCCSA regards this as inequitable.
  • As a response to short-term issues (section 4), which may involve temporary re-location for the BFINL (BFI, 2006 5.7), the question of what is to be the medium- or longer-term solution is important. MeCCSA notes that the BFI’s proposals for a new Film Centre in London are still at the feasibility stage, and in any case we are concerned that such a centre would be operational by the hoped-for date of 2012 MeCCSA would welcome both a clear statement of long-term aims for the BFINL and a firm timetable for achieving these and believes that no short-term solution should be adopted without also adopting a clear longer-term plan for financial stability for the BFINL.
  • It is necessary to consider also the future development of the BFINL in a way which does not devolve responsibility for the future to the proposed partners.. . While the BFINL is facing pressing problems in relation to its current activities, there are other problems of a more fundamental nature which MeCCSA wishes to see addressed; these are indicated below.

The future care of the nation’s moving image heritage

MeCCSA recognises that this is not just a simple question of how the BFI might deal with short-term financial problems, or how the HE sector might best partner a specialist library. There are a number of important issues that inform and affect this relationship, including legal deposit, copyright, storage and access. There are issues about the core infrastructure for a developing field, how the BFINL should fit in with library services nationally, and whether the call by Lord Puttnam for the National Film and Television Archive (NFTVA) to be linked more closely to the British Library (Puttnam, 2006) also extends to the BFINL.

There are of course similar issues in relation to HE’s relationship with the NFTVA, the BFINL’s sister department within the BFI. The NFTVA has been the subject of some public discussion in recent years, over changes in staff structure and numbers, and policies. Both departments have at various times over the past half-century suffered from under-funding and inadequate resources. Both departments have acquisition and access policies shaped in part by pragmatic responses to that lack of resource, within the context of a voluntary rather than a legal deposit system concerning the moving image in the UK. This has resulted, rather paradoxically, in some world-renowned acquisitions residing in what is overall a partial collection. Examples of this include the recently rescued Mitchell and Kenyon collection of Edwardian films in the NFTVA and the superb collection of papers in the Michael Balcon collection in the BFINL. On the other hand, there are no more than a few tens of screenplays of the silent era, to 1930, in the possession of the BFI whereas, by contrast, French archives hold at least 10,000 screenplays dating from 1907 to 1923.

The size and significance of the BFINL collection has also grown in another way. As other media libraries have closed and passed to the BFINL, such as those of the Independent TV Companies Association (ITCA) and the Independent Television Commission (ITC), the importance of the BFINL as a single source of documentation has increased. Similarly, the role of the NFTVA as the repository for material acquired on closure of film companies or as archive for non-BBC television companies is extremely important. In addition, the BFI has also grown a corpus of staff expertise and knowledge in both departments that is well-known and highly respected, and upon which much of their successful work depends. Both collections are successful despite the obstacles, but there is no guarantee this will be the case in the future.

It is our view that the short-term issues currently facing the BFINL have their root in the difficulties in developing a robust moving image heritage policy over the last century in the UK. It is therefore important that we consider such issues as a whole and afresh, recognising this as an opportunity to establish a firm basis for a new system of moving image and related documentation archives and collections, to last over this century. This may mean a break with past practice and will certainly involve a commitment from all partners and stakeholders in the field to work towards an agreed goal. MeCCSA recognises the efforts of the BFI to address these issues as well as the short-term problems and would like to join with the BFI in promoting an open, reasoned debate about establishing a commonly-agreed long-term strategy for acquiring, preserving and accessing the UK’s moving image heritage, both for future material and retrospective acquisition. It is because of this that we do not wish to see any decisions taken in the short-term which might close off the options in such a debate.

The participation of all stakeholders in our nation’s moving image heritage in the process of (re-) formulating these aims and timetable is crucial These stakeholders go well beyond HEIs and include other libraries and archives such as the British Library, the National Media Museum, the National Archives, the BBC, ITN, the Imperial War Museum, the British Universities Film and Video Council, the Film Archive Forum and regional film archives, local authority libraries and museums and many small independent collections; and users and funders such as the Department for Media Culture and Sport, the Higher Education Funding Councils, the Research Councils (particularly AHRC), Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) the Heritage Lottery Fund, MeCCSA, and individual Universities. In addition interested bodies and parties include the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, the National Council on Archives, the British Screen Advisory Council, the action group Custodes Lucis, and Lord Puttnam.

We note the increase in public discussion about this issue in recent years, and other recent and relevant work such as the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property, published on 6th December 2006, in which Andrew Gowers recognised the importance of enabling and access to (and therefore preservation of) the UK’s cultural heritage (HM Treasury 2006:2). We are aware that the BFI is also concerned about the long-term issues. It seems appropriate that moving image heritage should be the subject of a working conference to attempt the achievement of a national consensus on moving image heritage strategy. The stakeholders mentioned above, together with other interested participants and international observers, should be invited to participate.

Summary

MeCCSA would like to draw attention to various concerns about the BFI’s proposals for a partnership between the BFINL and HE for the following reasons:

  • The BFINL is being positioned as an HE resource rather than as a national resource;
  • This ‘temporary solution’ is likely to become permanent in the absence of a clear strategy for future development;
  • Having a lead HEI partner privileges that partner in other competitions for funding and may draw funding away from other HEIs;
  • Partnership in a consortium of HEIs is not representative of the sector as a whole and and would not solve the problems associated with a lead partner;
  • The BFI suggestion that the probable location of the lead HEI be London excludes a debate on London-centric provision;
  • This partnership is proposed as an answer to short-term financial problems but it impacts upon future development of the library, about which there are no plans yet;
  • The long-term problems with collecting, preserving and accessing documentation on the moving image in the UK are not the focus of these proposals. However, this wider picture is fundamental to the re-establishment of a sure footing for the BFINL and its sister collection, the NFTVA.

In order to consider these matters and build relationships, MeCCSA proposes a working conference on a national strategy for moving image heritage to be attended by stakeholders.

References

  • British Film Institute (2006) Library Partnerships: next steps. 5pp.
  • HM Treasury (2006) Gowers sets out intellectual property system fit for the digital age. Press Release 06/12/06 www.hm-treasury.gov.uk accessed 12/12/06
  • National Audit Office (2003) Improving access to, and education about, the moving image through the British Film Institute. Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General. HC593 2002-3 11th April 2003.
  • Puttnam (2006) All national archives will be ‘under one roof’ one day… but I won’t live to see it. Archive Zones Spring 4pp.
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