The New BFI Library – An Olympic Alternative?
Turning up to the BFI over the Olympic fortnight you will have been greeted by the sight of a security guard on the front door and the front bar having being gutted and decked out in garish advertising for the benefit of a corporate sponsor. Not exactly embracing the spirit of welcoming the world, and in stark comparison to its neighbour the National Theatre with its new waterfront bar and the now customary line-up of outdoor events throughout the summer. Admittedly cinema is a predominantly indoor activity, the BFI lack a comparable space, and a sun soaked balcony of the National Theatre is more attractive than a bar tucked away under Waterloo Bridge but it was still disappointing to see the space sold off and avid cinema goers having to slip in a side entrance.
But things are not all bad at the BFI and while they were denying regular customers access to one part of the building the recent opening of the new library reading room at the Southbank site is probably the access issue that deserves most attention. Moving this resource into this much more visible space makes it much more inviting to a cinema going audience. I still find the idea of specialist research library sort of intimidating, and despite my interests would never have thought that I was welcome at the BFI library, after all I might be getting in the way of people who have a ‘real’ reason for being there. This might be a hangover from my library and study aversion when I first attended university, but surely I have as much right as anyone to take a more detailed interest in the films I choose to watch and what could more effectively confirm that belief than putting the library next to the box office and directly opposite the bar.
Having said that, I still needed to manufacture a reason to visit for the first time. Over the last year I’ve become slightly obsessed with Carol Reed’s 1947 film Odd Man Out where James Mason plays an injured Republican leader on the run in post war Belfast after an ill fated robbery, and had read in Dai Vaughan’s BFI Classics book about the film that it had been reviewed at the time in Documentary Newsletter. It seemed strange that a publication dedicated to documentary should review a fiction film, but interestingly it also provoked strongly divided opinion with with two prominent figures in the British documentary movement, Basil Wright and Edgar Anstey, providing respectively positive and negative views of the film. My online searches had failed to find the original texts, but within seconds of walking into the reading room I was able locate them amongst the collected journals on the shelves, and see the reviews in the context of the original publication, amongst advertisements for films in production at the time and musings on the state of documentary filmmaking in Britain. A discovery that on it own was worth giving up a Saturday morning in the sunshine for.
It was the hottest day of the year so far, which probably contributed to how few people were in the library when I visited, and there were plenty of free desks and seats, even computer terminals with access to electronic resources of the BFI and other online journals. While I was there I noticed people peeking in as they went past, even sometimes setting foot through the door, and then retreating which made me think that something other than the small sign on the door stating that access is free could be done to welcome in casual visitors, particularly on weekends when there are matinee screenings. And the staff are certainly welcoming, taking time to introduce people to the collection and show them how to use the online catalogue. Currently on display shelves are books on Hitchcock relating to the major season of his films running over the summer, which made me wonder if screening notes could be adapted to suggest further reading, or as a way to lead visitors to look at how certain films have been received over time.
It is amazing resource to have on hand, searchable in advance online and the titles on the shelves of the reading room can be augmented with those requested from the basement stacks. It could offer for many a real enhancement to the cinema going experience, with opening hours until 7pm most days (Tues-Sat) there is a small post work window for most to avail themselves of the calm, quiet and pleasant surroundings for free to pursue whatever interest in film they might have. Although on this particular Saturday I was eventually driven out by the fierce air conditioning, even flicking through a book on passion filled Technicolor melodramas could not insulate me from the chill.
Blog post by Kevin Mullen