BFI old and new

BFI old (to the right) and new

There is a section of the Bioscope Library devoted to online catalogues and databases. One major database missing from the list that of the British Film Institute, because we knew that the BFI was planning to upgrade the database quite significantly, and so it was best to wait for the new rather than produce any sort of disquisition on the old.

Well, they’ve started introducing the new, but we’re not quite there yet. The BFI is in the process of changing its online presence quite radically, onto a more unified and simplified platform. Many familiar and useful pages have disappeared, such as the guide to distributors, the list of researchers working in film studies, and the PDFs of digitised film reference guides. One hopes that such losses are temporary. [Update: They’re still there, on the old version of the site being maintained for the time being – see comments]

You will also look in vain for somewhere on the new site that says database. That’s because it is now called Explore film (interestingly Explore is the British Library now uses for its unified catalogue – we’re all so keen to be user friendly and not scare off the timid with words like catalogue or database). It’s a link on the main menu, and the front page makes striking use of film images which are links to catalogue records.

Once the website has settled down we will review it properly. There is much there that is new and of great interest, including stills, extensive hyperlinking, see also suggestions, and filtering by country, genre, subject and date, which open up the records to all manner of new kinds of enquiry and discovery. Like the old database, it still doesn’t distinguish between films that the BFI has and films about which it merely holds information, but the bringing together of filmographic and technical information has ben a major goal of the database development plans, so presumably we’ll see this in time (such unified data is avalable in the version of the database accessible in the BFI’s new library at its Southbank complex).

Some things are missing however, most significantly the shotlists or longer synopses which accompanied many archive records, particularly for older films – meaning predominantly silent – which are invaluable for the serious researcher. The synopses haven’t disappeared – they are on the version of the database in the BFI library) but they are not available online on the new database, as yet.

But the BFI continues to make the old version of its database available, though the link for this in not published anywhere on the new site. However, you can find it at, and there you can search all of its records as before, and find the fuller synopses where available. All of the links to BFI database records on the Bioscope (and there are many) still link through to these database records. The old version also has an Advanced Search option which the new one has jetisoned in favour of filtering. Both have their virtues – and as a researcher I’d rather have both.

How long the old database will remain available has not been said. Presumably once everything has been transferred across to the new site, then the old will be shut down – and all of the old links will become dead overnight, which is just a tad annoying. It’s also worth checking carefully between the two databases while we still have them, because they are bringing up different research results, which appears to be on account of some fields not having been copied across as yet (for instance, I searched for ‘Henville’, the donor of an important collection of early films whose name had appeared on several alternative titles, and found two records on the new database, sixteen on the old – which is not to say that those records are missing, simply that I can’t currently find them under the search term I was able to use previously).

So, to recap – the old BFI database can be found at The new BFI database will be found at The new one has lots of exciting new features, but appears to be a work in progress. Meanwhile it’s strongly recommended that you keep referring to the old one, while you can.