Cinematograph Films: Their National Value and Preservation

We intend to have a series of posts on The Bioscope highlighting some key texts in our field which are being made freely available online, through transcription or digitisation. In particular we will be highlighting documents available from the Internet Archive. This is a superb source of downloadable documents, images, software, audio and video, as well as ‘archiving’ the Internet itself, to a degree, made accessible through its Wayback Machine.

Suitably following on from the recent posts we have had on the early history of film archives, the first text is Alex J. Philip, Cinematograph Films: Their National Value and Preservation (London: Stanley Paul & Co. 1912). This booklet is a call for the preservation of films as historical records. It argues the necessity of making visual records of our time for the benefit of future generations, not just of major historic events but of the arts, crafts and customs of the nation which one day must pass. After giving a short history of the development of the cinema, and in particular the Kinemacolor system devised by Charles Urban and G.A. Smith, Philip makes practical proposals for a National Cinematographic Library. He considers selection, preservation, film handling, classification, and cost (£20,000, “a mere bagatelle for a national institution”), and indicates that Urban had made a “munificent offer” to present his Kinemacolor films to the nation, were such a library to be created. There is something particularly tragic about this, given that the vast majority of Urban’s Kinemacolor films are now lost. Philip was a librarian, and his arguments are generally that looking after films will be little different to looking after books. There is no mention of the fire hazard presented by nitrate film. He also proposes matching motion picture records to sound recordings, with particular reference to a Voice Museum established at the Paris Opéra in 1907.

It is an idealistic document, well worth reading (it was originally published in the journal The Librarian). Philip makes mention of fiction films as a new phenomenon, but says he is not concerned with “the reproduction of enacted scenes”. It is curious, given the calls for the preservation of actuality films as historical records made at this time, that it was not until dramatic films came to be valued by the intelligensia that the first national film archives were seriously mooted, eventually appearing for the first time in the early 1930s.

The booklet is available in DjVu format (1.2MB), PDF (3.7MB) or plain text (29KB).

2 responses

  1. Luke,
    Very interesting, it is something I have run across here. I know as far back as the teens in the US there were Bills put before Congress to film and then preserve some of what was deemed “Historical Events”. I know that the infamous Will Hays had pushed for a repository for Historical Films. In 1920 I believe Fred Perkins (then Head of Department of Agriculture Motion Picture Division) wrote a piece for the Society of Motion Pciture Wngineers Journal an Article on ” THe Importance of the Preservation Of Historical Motion Picture Films”


  2. I think it’s well worth digging out all of these early calls for the preservation of films. It’s not just that they argue for film preservation, but what kinds of films they want to see preseved, and the comparisons with other media which I find so interesting. Stephen Botomore has done much of this work in his researches into the earliest archives, but let’s keep the quest going and publish the evidence. We’ll certainly have more such documents from the Internet Archive highlighted here (David Pierce has been doing a lot of research into documents now available online and is going to let us know about his findings).

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