Cataloguing the Films of the British Council

Cataloguing the expansive selection of films that form the British Council’s documentary archive was always going to be a complex task. There are a number of considerations to take into account, from deciding on methods of categorization, to deciphering the date of release if different to the date of completion. With this in mind when reviewing back issues of the BFI’s Sight & Sound journal in the BFI Library, it proved intriguing to stumble across an article titled Cataloguing the National Film Library by E. H. Lindgren from the Autumn 1940 edition.

It seems a number of common themes translate across the seventy years since this article was written, as Lindgren states ‘[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][U]nfortunately, there are all sorts of practical difficulties which prevent a film being made available so easily’; however spectacular advancements in technology create a world of difference in the considerations necessary for access. Whether for the ‘single research worker, the historian of cinema, or the student of modern social history, who wishes to consult the other and larger part of the Library’, the great privilege we have in the present day is an abundance of digital technology, particularly the immense information giant that is the internet. Already we have a total of 13 films digitized and in place on the Time/Image website, these become transferable documents transcending the limitations of celluloid or nitrate, ready to be viewed on systems around the world without ‘the wear and tear caused by certain types of movieola’ that have not been approved for purpose. However, this sort of freedom does not come without its own complications that are born of the ‘digital age’, the intricacies of copyright, ownership and appropriation seemingly the most pressing.

As a fairly new medium of the time, 1940s strategies on how to best organise the storage of films were under debate as there was a lack of recognised ‘procedure’ to follow. Thoughts of a Dewey type structuring system were raised but soon discarded as ‘the weight and bulk of films, and the fact that they have to be stored in small vaults of standard size, [made] it quite impractical to store them in any subject order’. It was time for a ‘new application of cataloguing principles’ which incorporated storage methods based on the numbering of films as they were acquired, along with a numbering and lettering system ‘to denote separate reels’. Cataloguing would rely on information taken on the film’s title, theme, country of production, date of production etc., a system that has withheld the test of time and is still present today.

No matter how useful this system has been in suggesting a standardization of approach, it does not help all too much with answering the questions cataloguingraises, those that grow from the complexities of the individual works that are to be ‘tamed’. For instance, would The Life of the Rabbit be recognised as a film about nature, about reproduction or could it be classed under the umbrella title of ‘education’? It’s a tricky business and not one that advancements in technology can necessarily improve, it appears more a matter of opinion, a personal reading of the film and the resonance that it makes with the individual, the ‘intimate’ language of the film as it were. As we continue the process of organising, curating and debating themes that resonate within the works, we are not suggesting a prescribed method of approach to the archive itself.  We are demonstrating the individualised interaction film can enact, highlighting routes into the archive and illustrating the multitude of ways viewing can be approached regardless of whether it’s on television, a smart-phone or in a viewing room on 35 mm.

Lindgren comments at the end of his article, ‘the task is an important one and in view of the absence of precedent cannot be too carefully undertaken. I must therefore conclude by saying that if any interested person regarding these notes feels that he can help us with suggestions we shall be most grateful to receive them.’ The concept of cataloguing and the archive is constantly evolving, largely down to the ways in which we use available resources, therefore it seems appropriate to re-iterate Lindgren’s statement and once again encourage comment, debate and discussion on methods of collection and collation of material. If you have any thoughts on the matter … please let us know!



Lindgren, E., ‘Cataloguing the National Film Library’ in Sight & Sound, Vol.9, No. 35, Autumn 1940, pp. 50 – 51.


Scroll to Top