Reel Research: Studying Film and Television at the British Film Institute’s Reuben Library

Sarah Currant, BFI Reuben Library


The BFI Reuben Library has been supporting research on film, television and the moving image for 81 years, with the formation of an Information Department and a reference library of books mentioned in the British Film Institute’s first annual report for 1933/34. The name of the department has changed several times, personnel have come and gone and the physical location has moved between various sites in central London, but the collection has remained a constant for anyone with an interest in film.

The collection spans the history of cinema and is one of the largest collections of written material about film and television in the world. We hold journals, books, annuals, newspaper cuttings and festival catalogues over two sites; we aim to specialise in the moving image in Britain but we are also international in our scope.

The new library opened its doors at BFI Southbank in June 2012, after moving from its previous home at Stephen Street, in the West End. Most significantly, the library also became free to use, more visible, and open to everyone. As well as being an access point for the library’s extensive collections, the intention behind having a free library space was to open up wider engagement with the BFI’s collections as a whole, including computer terminals for researchers to access the BFI’s new and comprehensive database, Collections Search. The external web version is available here:

Despite the specialist nature of the collection, the library has always attracted a broad cross section of users. A sizeable proportion of our user base is academic, including A Level, undergraduate and postgraduate students, teachers and lecturers. We are also used by film journalists, screenwriters and filmmakers as well as film enthusiasts and members of the public who are just passing through on their way to see a film or meet up with friends – another benefit to being free and more visible.

Enquiries come into the library in a variety of ways. There is an enquiry form via the website and these emails are monitored by a dedicated Research & Enquiries Librarian. We also receive some telephone enquiries. The majority of enquiries however come to us via our reading room.

The library team has 15 staff (4 part-time) who supervise the reading room on a rotational basis. We are open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10.30am to 7pm, and a lot can happen over the course of a “normal” day. Often queries are simple, involving the location of a relevant book title or a request for a recent issue of Sight & Sound magazine. Our most frequently asked question is for the WiFi password!

A large part of our work is ensuring researchers can see parts of our collections that are not on open access. We have a closed stack at the Southbank and a vault at the BFI’s Conservation Centre in Hertfordshire, in addition to the stock in the reading room. We run hourly retrievals from our stack, and Conservation Centre materials can generally be delivered within 5 working days.

Some recent enquiries have included a young woman who wanted to find out more about the career of her late grandmother who had worked on a number of Hammer horror productions; a couple who travelled from Yorkshire to watch a film from the National Film and Television Archive that had been digitised and added to Collections Search; and a Basque filmmaker who had worked in the new wave cinema of Paris in the 1960s and who wished to donate his book to the library.

During the course of a library duty session we might be asked the best way to search Collections Search for information about a given film or subject, to advise where a researcher new to the world of screen studies should start looking for information, demonstrate how the digitised press cuttings collection can be accessed on our research terminals, and help someone scan material to take away with them on our digital book scanners.

For the past 15 years we have also run an A Level study visit programme. These visits are pre-booked and run throughout the academic year. Group study visits are a fantastic way of engaging with the library collection on a deeper level, particularly in getting to know about recent acquisitions, for example, Is there anything written about Luther or The Bridge? Have there been any recent in-depth interviews with Leonardo DiCaprio? The Reader Services team take responsibility for preparing research materials for the students in advance, based on information provided by their teacher. Groups then receive an introduction to finding materials in the collection when they arrive and are assisted by library staff during their visit.

We acknowledge that not everyone with a research need can make the journey to London. We have recently launched a Digital Library On Demand service to researchers who require journal articles or extracts from books in our collections. For a small fee, researchers can request up to five items to be scanned and we will send them PDFs via a downloadable link. The service is still relatively new, but we have already provided scans for people as far afield as Australia and North America.

We are happy to provide tours for interested groups of fellow information professionals with prior booking. Please contact to discuss availability and requirements. Alternatively, please drop by and say hello next time you’re on the Southbank. We’d love to see you.

 Refer 32 (1) Spring 2016


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