Transforming the BFI Library
The BFI is at the centre of the biggest change in the UK film landscape for over ten years. We are at the start of a new era in which the BFI is now the lead organisation for film in the UK and a Lottery distributor of funding for film. It is an opportunity that we have been addressing with energy and optimism, but it has also come at a time when our Government grant has been significantly cut over a four year period.
We have been meeting the challenge head on with a transformation of our executive and management capability, and a dynamic approach to new partnerships and investment in modernisation.
Among the measures we are proposing is a phased development project for the BFI Library which will see it relocate and open in the former Gallery space at BFI Southbank. The project will be carried out over two to three months starting in early March. The new Library will be accessed from June with a formal launch in September 2012. For the first time this would enable us to develop a single, coherent creative vision across the venue that would bring together the whole BFI offer in one place - from the Mediatheque and programming, to Education and Collections.
While this is a big challenge, it is also a great opportunity. Principally, it enables us to take full advantage of the huge benefits of opening the Library in time for the busy 2012 summer with the Cultural Olympiad and the Olympics creating an unprecedented focus on the capital. The South Bank will be at the centre of cultural activities during this time and the Library can be launched right into the heart of our own cultural offering for the Olympiad.
The BFI Library is one of the foremost libraries of film and television information in the world. While its main focus is British film and television, there is also material in more than 15 languages that is international in scope. Despite its undisputed strengths, usage of the Library has declined steadily from around 17,000 visitors a year between 1998-2000, to under 11,000 in 2011. Visitor groups remain concentrated among a narrow range of users and we have failed to attract new members from a wider pool of interest. Nor does the Library’s current structure and location enable it to fully realise its potential to contribute to a joined-up delivery or support for the wider cultural programme at BFI Southbank.
Overall, the Library is in urgent need of modernisation, an ambitious digitisation programme, new users and adventurous integration with the wider BFI cultural offerings.
Our vision for the Library is to:
- Develop new audiences for film through engagement with collections and knowledge by integrating the Library and collections access with the public offer at BFI Southbank
- Create a modern and exciting library that can be used more flexibly for other activities, such as group visits, events, lectures and workshops
- Develop a digital centre for film knowledge through which the public and researchers can engage with BFI collections - onsite and online UK-wide.
A research project incorporating focus groups and an online questionnaire was carried out at the end of 2011 to explore how and by whom the Library is currently used, what were the inducements and barriers to engagement, and how could we improve on or expand its services. Around 3,000 recipients were invited to take part and we received 400 responses. Some of the findings were as we anticipated, but in other areas helpful insights emerged. One of the clearest findings is that the BFI Library is highly valued by users, especially for the expertise of its staff and its collections. It was also very clear that there are two distinct groups of users with contrasting relationships and expectations of the Library. Other findings were: many non-London based users would be willing to pay for remote digital access to collections; and nearly everyone said they would welcome longer opening hours and increased social spaces.
The project to date
A core project team has been working on the proposal to modernise and relocate the Library and has undertaken detailed investigation and planning work including options for both a fast-track and longer-term delivery timescale. We have tendered for an architect and a contractor to see if the relocation is not only physically possible in the BFI Southbank space, but also if it is affordable. The results were positive in both cases and were presented, along with the final business case, to the BFI Strategic Projects Board who have given an emphatic go ahead to proceed with the fast-track option. This decision was further noted by the BFI Governors at their meeting on 16 February 2012.
The Library development work has been progressing alongside the broader work of the BFI as it consults on its new remit and develops a Forward Plan that sets out its strategic direction for film for the next five years. The first phase of the Library refurbishment will be integrated into the preparations for this new era for film with access starting in June 2012, followed by a formal launch in September 2012.
Free, modern and more access
In the first phase we will relocate the service from Stephen Street to a new purpose-built space at BFI Southbank, we will increase digitisation and, from 1 April 2012, access will be free of charge. Following survey feedback from many of our users the new Library will also offer a Saturday service and regular longer weekday opening hours. Building work will start in early March 2012.
For more information on the project and regular updates, including questions on membership refunds, changes to service hours, etc, please see below or check the website for updates as the refurbishment progresses. If you would like to join a mailing list to receive regular updates on the progress of our plans for the BFI Library, please email your contact details to email@example.com. It would be helpful if you could also state your relationship to the current Library for example, ‘researcher’ or ‘general interest’. Some of our frequently asked questions are below.
Frequently asked questions
Will I still pay to be a Library member?
No. From 1 April 2012 access to the BFI Library will be free of charge and all membership categories will be abolished.
How can you afford to have a free membership while you have a 15% cut in your Government funding?
Library membership has fallen steadily over the last 10 years and income derived from the membership scheme has hardly covered the costs of managing the scheme. Our projected increase in library visitors (expected to rise to 25,000 per annum) means we can attract more users for new income generating activities, such as events or digital services. These assumptions were confirmed in the Library research when more than 70% of respondents confirmed they would be happy to pay for events such as lectures and workshops, while nearly half of current non-users indicated they would use the library if it were free.
What will the new opening hours be and how do they differ from the current times?
We’re standardising our opening hours to be the same each day, rather than the different opening and closing hours we have currently. We will be open Tuesday to Saturday 10:30 to 19:00. The new hours increase our opening times by 13%, affording greater accessibility to the Library and its collections.
What is happening to the BFI Library?
We are proposing to relocate the BFI Library and as much of the book and periodical collection that exists there currently, from Stephen Street to BFI Southbank. This will have the benefit of allowing us to tie it closer to our public cultural programmes and to the Mediatheque there, and to provide greater access for free. BFI Southbank is open seven days a week and is a very popular destination for people to engage fully with film. For the first time the Library will be open at the weekend – on a Saturday – and available to be used by more people.
The transformation of the Library will be planned in phases, with the first phase – relocation to BFI Southbank – happening by May/June 2012.
Why is the BFI doing this?
One of the drivers for change at the BFI is our ambition to offer increased public access to BFI Collections and to engage with more people and a wider range of users. User numbers have been steadily declining over the past few years and Library membership shrinking. Also, we have long wanted to invest in the BFI Library to improve the user experience and to integrate it more closely with our public and cultural programmes. Relocating the Library to BFI Southbank has the benefit of making it more open to the public, with a Saturday opening and for free.
Why are you doing the build so quickly?
After this proposal was announced last year, we set up a core project team to carry out detailed investigation and planning work including options for both a fast-track and longer-term delivery timescale. This scoping has progressed alongside the broader work of the BFI as it consults on its new remit and develops a Forward Plan that sets out its strategic direction for film for the next five years. Consultation on the Forward Plan is scheduled to roll out from mid-2012 and we have decided that the first phase of Library refurbishment will be integrated into the launch of this new era for film with access starting in June 2012, followed by a formal launch in September 2012.
We have a unique opportunity afforded by the Olympic Games in the capital this June to be part of the cultural focus on the city and London’s South Bank in particular. In exploring the feasibility of the project through the detailed Business Plan, the architect’s designs and the contractor costings, a significant amount of preparatory work has been undertaken that make the shortened timeframe achievable. If we do not move ahead with the project now we will have to wait until after the Olympics and the BFI London Film Festival in October. Costs will increase and we see no advantage in delaying the building work.
What consultation did you do?
We have held talks and discussion over the past 12 months with a wide range of stakeholders including current users, potential new audiences and our own staff. We have held focus groups and also invited around 3,000 targeted stakeholders to take part in an online research survey (to read the results, click here). Initial responses to our proposals have been generally hugely positive, but there has been some concern that the move will reduce our existing services or make access more difficult. The services will change but our committed aim is to improve, modernise and expand our Library offering.
Originally we thought we would work within a much longer timeframe but the environment within which the BFI operates has changed radically and we have had to adjust our plans accordingly.
We have always been clear about our ambition to move the Library to Southbank – it has to work more closely with our public programmes, it has to grow new audiences and it has to widen its user-base.
What happens to the Collections of books, leaflets, periodicals and other items currently in the Library?
We aim to relocate as much as possible of the collection currently held in the BFI Library to the new site in BFI Southbank. At the moment, 80% of the Library collection is held at Stephen Street. The remaining 20% of the Library collection and 100% of our Special Collections (company and personal papers, scripts, posters, designs, stills, press books) are housed in our Conservation Centre in Berkhamsted, and always have been. These collections are held off-site as it is not economical to hold rarely-used materials in high cost central London real estate, and we also need to care for them in appropriate environmental conditions.
Will the collection be split between sites and become difficult to access?
No. The collection of books and periodicals at the Library at Stephen Street is the most comprehensive of its kind in the world and it grows in size and depth every year. Storage space has been an ongoing issue for a long time. Under the new proposals, we aim to use modern storage solutions to enable us to keep as much of the actively used collection as possible with the Library when it relocates to BFI Southbank. At least 28% more of the Library Collections will be available on open access in the new space along with significantly more magazines. But we also estimate that we will be able to move some collections to Berkhamsted without diminishing the service we offer to Library users when it relocates to BFI Southbank.
What about the other collections of film and TV material, scripts and private papers of filmmakers – will I have to go to Berkhamsted to view those?
No. Currently, anyone wishing to view the Special Collections (company and personal papers, scripts, press books) can request them from the Archive in Berkhamsted and they are brought to London on a van run. You must always book an appointment in advance to view Special Collections. This arrangement will be reviewed as we develop the detail of the new Library systems.
The same goes for anyone wishing to view material from the Film and Television collection. They request the material in advance from our Research Viewing Services facility.
In the future we want to deliver a digital-on-demand service that will also allow desktop delivery of materials for digital access at the Southbank. For example, our nitrate collections are not viewable, but could be if we digitise them on request. For researchers and curators who need to work on major collections (we have a few researchers at the moment who need this service, but we cannot accommodate them properly at the Conservation Centre) a bespoke facility will be created at Berkhamsted where the Collections are physically held.
What are your digitisation plans?
The BFI Library is committed to increasing digital access to its collections. At launch, the new library will have a suite of state of the art equipment for self-service scanning of paper and microform material available to its users. In addition, the BFI’s unique and heavily-used collection of press cuttings (covering film and television from the 1930s up to 2010) is in the process of being digitised, with a significant number available at launch in the new space. There are around four million individual images related to press cuttings which date back to the 1930s. They are one of the most widely used resources at the Library and making them available digitally will represent a massive improvement in accessibility.
If some parts of the collection are not on view in the Library, how do I know what is available to be seen?
A significant percentage of the collections held at the BFI are catalogued and we are working hard to improve this. We have been able to make investments from the Screen Heritage project which means that for the first time ever our database of titles held in the BFI National Archive moving image collections will be available online. In the course of next year we want to merge the Library catalogue, special collections and posters and designs data. Library users will be able to access the catalogue online to see what is in the collection and where it is held, so they can order up items if they are not physically in the Library. We will also rotate stock in the Library as user needs dictate – something we have always done. Elements of the collection that are rarely seen or used will be part of that rotation process.
Why are you not keeping all of the collections together on a single, easily accessible site?
All the great cultural collections are stored on multiple sites and rarely more than 5% of each is on public display at any one time. Even with other collections such as those of the British Library in London and the Library of Congress in Washington, the vast majority is not kept onsite. The BFI has a significant collection taking up 33 acres of land and issues of space and the need for the right storage conditions do not make it practical to store everything in Central London. The current turnaround time for calling items from the Special Collections and Library materials at the BFI National Archive to be viewed in London is upwards from two working days – for other national collections it can take a lot longer at five days or more.
Why create a research facility at Berkhamsted where it is more difficult to reach geographically?
The collections will still be accessible in London. We do understand the issues about the Berkhamsted location, but the majority of the film, TV and paper collections specifically are more fragile by nature and the better the conditions the material is kept in, and the less it is moved, the better it is from a conservation point of view. In the longer-term we propose creating a dedicated space at the Archive for partnered and in-depth research into existing and new collections, where they are held and where curators are on hand to assist and work with the researchers. This would augment rather than replace our current offer and is something that many researchers have requested. This will not happen immediately and is something we will look at for the next phase of the Library redevelopment.
What about users from outside London and overseas – how will their needs be catered for when they cannot reach Berkhamsted easily?
With the relocation to BFI Southbank we are planning to retain most of the collection of books and periodicals currently held at Stephen Street, so users regardless of where they are based should still be able to carry out their research in London. Currently, if they need to reference parts of the collection that are kept offsite then they do so by calling it up from the Archive. This arrangement does not change under these proposals.
The uniqueness of the BFI’s collections is that they are interlinked and one discovery leads to another part of the collection, so how does the BFI propose to allow that to continue?
By keeping as much of the collection currently actively used together in the relocated Library, we are confident that we will be able to continue to provide an open-ended research and reference experience.