Sound and vision blog

03 February 2010

The British Library's moving image collection

It's not generally known that the British Library has a moving image collection. We have books, manuscripts, newspapers, magazines, prints and drawings, sound recordings, music scores, patents and stamps- 150 million items overall - but you have to look quite hard to find the moving images. But they are there, and steps are being taken significantly to increase the Library's moving image presence, of which there will be more to read about as this blog progresses.

What do we have at the moment? It's around 40,000 titles, which is not insignificant in itself. The collection is almost entirely held by the British Library Sound Archive. The titles have been collected for their sound content, not surprisingly, and music predominates. The largest element of the collection is popular music videos. Thanks to an agreement with the Musicians' Union we have around 14,000 pop videos, dating from the late 1980s onwards - effectively the national collection.

Until 1999 the Sound Archive had an off-air recording programme, taking selected radio and television broadcasts from the UK terrestrial channels. The television component covers 1985-1999 and comprises some 9,000 titles. Again, the emphasis is on music - concerts, arts programming, awards shows and so on, though some documentaries and dramas of general interest were also recorded.

Then there is the film and video material which is unique to the Library. The Sound Archive has a strong oral history programme, and increasingly video is being used as well as, or instead of, audio to record such testimony. One major strand is Testimony: Video Interviews With Holocaust Survivors, over 170 interviews with survivors of the Holocaust recorded in collaboration with Yale University's Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies.

Testimony is also the name of a television company, headed by renowned film researcher and social historian Steve Humphries, which has produced a number of major series on British life in the twentieth-century, strongly based on oral testimony. From these we have all of the original interview footage for the series Labour of Love (1993) on parenting in Britain 1900-1950 and Forbidden Britain (1994), on the secret history of today's social issues.


The Sound Archive makes both audio and video recordings of theatre productions, with emphasis on experimental and fringe productions. Video highlights include video recordings made 1985-1995 of performances from the London International Festival of Theatre, Barclays New Stages and the ICA Theatre, and more recently digital video records of fringe theatre and live art at London venues such as Battersea Arts Centre and the Chelsea Theatre. Notably the Archive holds the complete rehearsal and performance video archive of theatre company Forced Entertainment.

The world and traditional music collection including some unique film and video recordings, notably the work of ethnomusicologists Rolf Killius (folk, devotional and ritual music in India) and Jean Jenkins (Arabic and African music).


Finally (and little perversely in view of its location within a Sound Archive) we are building up a collection of silent cinema on DVD, creating an access collection for films from the first thirty years of cinema (plus some modern attempts to keep silent film styles going) that does not exist elsewhere. There are around 300 titles collected so far, but the collection is growing.

So how do you find out what we have, and how do you see it? Finding out has, until recently, been quite tricky, but significant improvements are on the way. Step one is to go to the Sound Archive catalogue; step two, select Advanced Search; step three, then use the Format option (DVD video, DVD-R, Film, Laserdisc or Videotape) to limit your searches to moving image materials. It's a bit laborious, and much better is the Library's new integrated search service, still in Beta mode, called Search our Catalogue. This is bringing together searches for books, audio, websites and video, and is a development we're quite excited about. We'll be even more excited once we've got over the glitch which identifies all video content as being audio, but we're getting there.

To see what we've got, you need to make a booking through the Sound Archive's Listening & Viewing Service. Bookings need to be made in advance, and you'll need a Reader's pass. Viewings take place in carrels within the Rare Books & Music reading rooms.

That's where we are at present. There are pockets of moving image materials elsewhere in the Library, but they are just pockets. Where we're going to next must be the subject of another post.


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