Reviewed June 2015
Stephanie Grimm, Research and Instruction Librarian
Savannah College of Art and Design
Touted as “the world’s finest news and entertainment video film archive,” British Pathé provides viewers with access to over 85,000 historic newsreels and documentary footage, digitized from the archives of the former Pathé News and made freely accessible via YouTube. Researchers interested in using the clips for film or video art projects can find permissions information, along with extended paid-access content, on British Pathé’s main website.While primarily UK-centric in perspective, the archive covers national and international events and moments from the twentieth century, with three parallel “curated” channels devoted to three of British Pathé’s major content areas: war, fashion, and sporting history.
The volume of newsreel footage in this archive alone makes it an attractive resource for casual viewers and potential researchers alike. As one expects with historic footage, the video and sound quality varies, though most appear to have been optimized for greater accessibility and with the option for closed captioning or subtitles. (YouTube’s CC options provide for translation into other languages, further extending the potential reach of the content.) Also, while many of the clips retain their original narration, others have been edited with updated commentary from British Pathé. The contemporary narration provides some background or contextual information at best, but most times it offers little insight, or worse, is pure editorializing. As an example, a film compilation showcasing Russian Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin makes sensational implications as to the cause of his death - theories that have been debunked in official records. Users hoping to mine the archive for primary source material will also find that some content has been given the “Top Ten List” treatment and click-bait style titles, with clips edited together to varying degrees of amusing effect.
For the art librarian, the wealth of visual documentation provided by British Pathé is its great strength, and those supporting specific disciplines may find relevant playlists within the main and parallel channels. The “Old Dances” playlist, for example, includes thirty historic recordings of ballroom and dance hall steps from the 1920s through the 1960s; beyond dance, the music, fashion, and set design in this footage should offer scholarly and studio-based research appeal and visual inspiration. An “Art Museums” playlist offers behind-the-scenes views of exhibitions and gallery openings, and the original commentary is interesting in its consideration of modern art, but most of the clips are short and only provide a passing overview of an exhibition. The parallel “Vintage Fashion” channel likewise offers glimpses of British and international fashion and beauty through the century, though again the content ranges in color, quality, and potential use.
British Pathé is easily searchable using YouTube’s standard or advanced functions within the channel, and most clips include brief to extended descriptions that contain useful metadata for indexing and sourcing. No tags or controlled vocabularies are employed, however, and users should consider the variances between contemporary and historic British terminology when searching. The aforementioned playlists organize much of British Pathé’s content into over 50 topics ranging from “natural disasters” to “The Berlin Wall,” while the separate channels covering fashion, war, and sport (all linked from the main page) duplicate content from the main channel but offer more focused playlists to facilitate browsing. To avoid spillover from YouTube’s infamous comments section, or from auto-playing content from other channels, instructors should consider making their own playlists or directly embedding the videos in course sites.
While British Pathé seems intended for a popular audience, the underlying content is nonetheless a potential resource for scholars and students researching the twentieth century in general and cultural trends in particular.