Recently I was asked to find some historical quotations about the need for film archives. Calls for a museum for the preservation of films for all time are almost as old as film itself, even since Robert Paul tried to get the British Museum to take a number of his films in December 1896 (without success). The first true film archive is generally held to be the Imperial War Museum, effectively created in 1919, but there were several collections across the world in existence before them which could variously be described as film museums or libraries.
In my search through my papers, I was fascinated to come across an article by Langford Reed, ‘Films Museums: What Has Been Achieved’, The Bioscope, 30 July 1914, p. 471. In a survey of what was being done worldwide, Reed reported that “the national records office at Madrid” had a cinematograph section, while in Brussels the Congo Museum had a section devoted to “the preservation of films of wild animal life”. He says that films of religious interest were being held in the Vatican Museum. New York Public Library had a “cinematographic storehouse”, and the Indian state of Baroda had formed a library of “instructive films” which was being added to by the private cinematograph operator of the Gaekwar of Baroda. The Royal Library of Copenhagen had a collection of films taken of prominent men, together with phonograph records of their speeches (these films were taken by Denmark’s first filmmaker, Peter Elfelt).
Some of these are known about; some of these it would be intriguing to know if they ever existed in reality (and what happened to the films). But Reed’s real surprise is that in Britain he could find only one place preserving films “for the benefit of posterity” – Croydon Public Library. He went to meet the chief librarian, L. Stanley Jast, who told him:
The matter arose owing to the success which has attended a certain department, attached to the library, entitled, “The Photographic Survey and Record of Surrey.” It was suggested that section should be established to be devoted to the preservation of cinematograph films, and I accordingly wrote a letter on the subject to the chief local picturedrome proprietors. The result surprised me. I quite imagined I should be called upon to pay for any films required, but the gentlemen in question would not hear of it; they insisted on giving them to me. From the Amalgamated Cinematograph Theatres, Pyke’s Circuit, I received a film showing the distribution of prizes at the Upper Nrorwood Academy of Music, from Mr T.H. Windibank, of the London Electric Hall, pictures of the funeral of the late Town Clerk, and of the Croydon Horse Show, while from other sources I acquired about a dozen more. I am arranging with the picture theatre proprietors of the Borough to let me have other local films as soon as they have done with them – we shall keep entirely to subjects of local interest. In certain instances, too, it would be useful if we could engage an operator to take events especially for us. Practically, our only difficulties are concerned with storage, and in this connection I am now making enquiries as to fire insurance and as to the best means of permanently preserving films. I should welcome advice on these points.
The films will not be lent, as in the case of books. I have had a room – up to now devoted to the use of lantern lectures – so altered that cinematograph apparatus can be installed when required. The suggestion is to do without the usual projecting machine, and to view the pictures through the medium of an enclosed chamber, which has been especially designed for us by a local electrical engineer – himself the proprietor of a cinema – in which, in place of the projecting lens, a magnifying glass will be used. The movements will be induced by the hand, and this process will be quite efficient enough for the purpose of examining local records.
What happened to this collection? How long did it last? Was it ever used by the Croydon general public? Louis Stanley Jast appears to have been an interesting person himself: an important figure in the library world (he became President of the Library Association) and co-author of The Camera as Historian (1916). I will try and find out more.