The culture minister Ed Vaizey’s November 2010 announcement of the coalition government’s plans for the future of the UK film industry heralded “the new BFI”. Following the abolition of the UK Film Council (UKFC) in April 2011, the restructured British Film Institute, guardian of the nation’s moving-image culture since 1933, would become the new strategic body overseeing the development of British cinema, in partnership with Film London and the Regional Screen Agencies in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. As Vaizey said, the BFI would change fundamentally as it became the lead body for British film.
The BFI responded with a proposal for “a new film era in the UK”. This involves adapting to the current financial environment by prioritising core BFI activities, “those that audiences most value”. In addition to incorporating staff from the axed UKFC, the BFI is faced with a 15 per cent budget cut that requires efficiency savings, including job cuts. Key features of the “new era” proposals are a large-scale digitisation programme, necessitating investment in new skills; the removal of the BFI library and reading room from the institute’s Stephen Street premises to BFI Southbank; and the establishment of a bespoke study centre for academics and researchers in Berkhamsted. In tandem, there will be a drive to reduce overheads, boost new business and increase fundraising income.
As details of the plans emerged, alarm bells rang about the effects of the cost-cutting measures on the BFI national library, a world-class collection of print materials on the moving image and the gateway to UK film culture and history. The BFI library is used by a broad range of people, but historically higher education has been its primary market and this has underpinned the development of moving-image education in this country. Academics, researchers and students from across the globe rely on central London access to its materials and the support of its specialist staff. The relocation plans involve moving substantial amounts of the library collections to the Berkhamsted storage centre and the reorientation of the library reading room to the general public as part of the BFI’s audience development programme. The opening up of the BFI to the wider public is admirable — but in the context of the coalition government’s draconian cuts to the higher education sector and the devastating impact on the arts and humanities, the plans for the BFI library appear to be a retrograde step, with fewer staff operating a curtailed service. This would represent a serious threat to film and television studies research and education world-wide.
A group of senior academics mounted a campaign to keep the library collections together and accessible, and set up a petition to gather public support. The comments from signatories testify to the high regard in which the library and its staff are held by a large international community of users, and the value placed on its accessibility. Despite BFI assurances that the library service will benefit from the relocation plans, many questions remain: about space and storage availability at the Southbank site; about the timescale and costs of the digitisation programme; and about the impact of staff cuts on the library service. It’s clear that the library is not a priority and is unlikely to be improved by the proposals.
There is more at stake than convenience. It’s shameful that one of the most prestigious and valuable library collections in the world, the repository of our national film culture, should be struggling for survival. A new era for British cinema without the infrastructure of ideas, research, critical analysis and knowledge held by the BFI national library, disseminated by education at every level, is unthinkable.
Pam Cook is a writer, blogger and academic. She is responsible for bfiwatch, an independent blog dedicated to tracking events that have an impact on the work of the British Film Institute