Digitising the Bioscope

Volumes of The Bioscope on the shelves of the former British Newspaper Library at Colindale

Well, perhaps I can retire now. I’ve been at the British Library for eleven years, and we have finally got round to doing that which several must have expected of my being there, which is to digitise the silent film era trade journal The Bioscope. The fact that I had nothing to do with the decision, and that The Bioscope – as a periodical – does not fall within my jurisdiction as a news curator, are small matters. A good deed has been done.

The Bioscope was a British film journal which launched in 18 September 1908 and continued as a weekly until 4 May 1932. It had its basis (the exact details of which are unclear) in two earlier journals for showmen, The Amusement World and The Novelty News. It was originally published by Archibald Hunter, who sold out to Ganes Ltd who were in turn replaced as owners by the Bioscope Publishing Co Ltd, around 1916. For much of its history it was edited by John Cabourn. It was published in response to the mushrooming of cinemas that was just starting to take place in London and across the country, many of which were called Bioscopes after the popular and reliable projector produced by one Charles Urban, the engine on which the early film industry in Britain could be said to have built.

The Bioscope was aimed at the trade, not at the fans. It covered technical, financial and legislative issues. It reported on cinema trade activities across the UK, with regular regional round-ups. It documented film developments throughout the world. It ‘reviewed’ (which often meant no more than reproducing studio press releases) most of the films shown in the UK between 1908 and 1932. It profiled the major figures of the British film industry. It campaigned on issues that affected cinema owners, film producers and distributors. It was handsomely illustrated and carried copious advertisements for new films and cinema products. In short, it is an absolute treasure trove from anyone studying any aspect of film in Britain for the period that took the industry from short films to features to the conversion to sound.

The journal features significantly in the historiography of British film. It had two main rivals during this period, The Kinematograph Weekly and The Cinema, but aside from The Bioscope‘s intrinsic worth, it has earned some of its prominence because of the extensive use made of it by the late Rachael Low when writing her multi-volume The History of the British Film, which in turn was due very much to the British Film Institute having a complete run of the journal. Indeed, I remember that full set being on the shelves on the cataloguing department of the BFI’s National Film Archive when I joined it in 1986. Ah, happy days, until some wise if cold-hearted librarian decided that for preservation reasons it was only sensible to put the volumes into store, and we had to make do with the microfilm.

Front cover of The Bioscope, 2 April 1925

But there were others sets in existence, and that included the set deposited at the British Library. For a long time it was located at the British Newspaper Library in Colindale, before it closed down in 2013. Most of the newspapers and periodicals that had been held there moved to dedicated storage in Boston Spa, Yorkshire, but The Bioscope was moved to the basements at our St Pancras, London centre, as one of our high-use periodicals series. From there it was eventually selected by Findmypast, the family history company which selects and digitises content from the BL for the British Newspaper Archive website. Normally Findmypast digitises from microfilm sets, where we have them (around a third of the newspaper and periodical collection is held additionally on microfilm), because it is so much quicker to do so – around eighteen times quicker, it has been estimated. But The Bioscope had not been microfilmed, at least not by us, and so they digitised from the print volumes, and so you get the journal in all its colourful glory.

They have digitised the volumes for 1926 to 1932 so far, calculating that these would have the widest appeal (the early cinema elitists among us would probably have to concede the point). But the rest are following hot on the heels of these first seven years, and it is expected that the complete run will have been published online by December 2018.

The British Newspaper Archive is not a free site, but it’s a very reasonably priced one, and the business pays for the Library’s newspaper (and periodical) collection to be digitised and digitally preserved. It’s not actually the first set of Bioscope volumes to be digitised. The years 1930-1932 are freely available on the Internet Archive, digitised courtesy of the Media History Digital Library, while a few volumes from the teens held by New York Public Library are listed on Hathi Trust, but without digitised images available. On the BNA, you can word-search the lot – well, almost the lot, since one of the hazards of digitising from bound volumes is that a small amount of text is buried in the gutter and escapes the camera of the digitisers. But it’s only a small amount, and what is available is sensational. It should give a fresh boost to early film studies (and very early television studies, by the way), and attract new people to the subject – not least, those family historians who form the bedrock of British Newspaper Archive users.

Shall I retire? Well, not just yet, because there’s other stuff to be doing which promises to be no less exciting, nor any the less long-lasting, but which will take some time to develop. But progress is being made.

Go explore.

Links

  • The Bioscope is available from the British Newspaper Archive here: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/titles/the-bioscope
  • Other silent British film journals – in full or part runs – are freely available online, courtesy of the Media History Digital Library. They include The Cinema News and Property Gazette, Illustrated Films Monthly, Optical Lantern and Cinematograph Journal, Picturegoer and Picture Show
  • Some of the history of The Bioscope and Ganes Ltd can be found on Screenonline and The London Project sites
  • The Bioscope also partly inspired the name of my silent film website The Bioscope, which ran from 2007 to 2012, and remains available online

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