Visit to the BFI Reuben Library at BFI Southbank

On Tuesday 12th March we met Reading Room Librarian Sarah Currant outside a nicely bustling new BFI Reuben Library. The library relocated here 6 months ago from its former home at BFI HQ on Stephen Street, just of Tottenham Court Road, and on the whole it seems to have been a positive move. Looking totally different to the old building, the Reuben library also has a new clientele on the Southbank. In an effort to improve public engagement, memberships (and fees) were dropped, and opening hours extended. Although most of the established regulars were happy to come south of the river and have been enjoying the new library, there has inevitably been some resistance to change, particularly to losing the members’ club feel of Stephen Street. And of course there have been pluses and minuses for the library team. As a reference library, the BFI never had a circulation module on their LMS, so the new system has allowed for an increase in usage data. On the other hand, as there are no longer any membership forms (apart from a brief registry card for people using the research desks), staff have lost touch with the users somewhat – and unless they strike up a conversation with them, would not know, for example, which university they were from. Not to mention the loss of fees from the 4,000 or so members in the old library…

Created in 1935 as the National Film Library, the library has been serving film students and enthusiasts for almost 80 years now. It makes up just one part of the BFI’s collections, which also encompasses archives and special collections, (film, images, posters, and ephemera such as publicity material, original scripts, letters and other artefacts). The BFI Master Film Store in Gaydon, Warwickshire, a former arms depot, now RIBA award-winning edifice dubbed the film fridge, is the -5°C home for the BFI’s film stock. One of the major challenges of relocating the library to a more modern, but also more compact space was deciding what to bring. 80% of stock was kept on site at Stephen Street, but with reduced storage space in the new site, a significant portion of book stock had to be moved out to the BFI’s paper store in Berkhamsted – the figure now stands at about 55% on site, either in the reading room or in basement stacks. Readers now have to put in advanced requests for anything that is kept in off-site storage, and there is a 5 working day turnaround for collections. For more information on the library’s move from Stephen Street to the Southbank, see the following links:

Sarah also gave us a brief look at their very techie and impressive (for cataloguing enthusiasts) database. The new Adlib database replaces a total of 26 isolated systems, ranging from Access databases to the library management system. Come April when the system goes live, the public will be able to search across holdings from the library, archives, and special collections for the first time. The most interesting feature of this Collections Information Database (CID) is its metadata structure: FRBR. Not knowing a great deal about FRBR but knowing that it is fairly complex, I won’t attempt too much detail, other than to say that it stands for Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records, is the conceptual basis of RDA, and describes hierarchical relationships in terms of work, expression, manifestation, and item (or WEMI). Don’t quote me on that. Something that you can quote on taxonomies and cataloguing at the BFI is this blog post on the complexities of cataloguing film materials using genre terms: Genres: where to draw the line?
I have been a die-hard BFI-goer for many years now, and can vouch for all their public events, from film screenings to Q&As and lectures. At last year’s Ernest Lindgren Memorial Lecture I heard Steve Crossan (Head of Google’s Cultural Institute) talking about the concerns of archiving and preservation in the digital age, at a time when sixty hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute. And did you know that this was the first video ever to be uploaded to YouTube? But I digress… The Reuben Library is now getting in on the act with a calendar of public events held after hours. See the website for upcoming library events, including a Freudian psychoanalytic reading of Pasolini’s Theorem. After several institution-wide restructures in recent years, the library is currently running on a slim staff of 12, a fact which I find personally quite dispiriting. Perhaps I should take heart at the thought that at one time, the National Film Library was run by a staff of two: Ernest Lindgren as information officer, and Harold Brown as preservation officer. So things could be worse. 

For more information on the formation of the BFI and its collections, see the entry on Ernest Lindgren in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.


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