News on Screen

Project Name: News on Screen (formerly British Universities Newsreel Scripts Project, as listed in DH Commons)

Project URL:

Project Author, Team: British Universities Film & Video Council; the most recent stage of the project is funded by the  Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), a UK charity for the advancement of technology for research and education.

Reviewed by: Loren Springer

Review date: March 9, 2015

Tags or keywords: No metadata. I checked myself and with a metadata analysis tool.

Genre: This site fits most concretely into digital archive and multimedia exhibit. However, it could fit in a number of categories for research and in some categories related to pedagogy because it is a primary source database. There are no explicated uses for pedagogy, like a “Teacher’s section” or “Lesson plans”, but teachers and students could use this as a tool for finding primary sources. 

Project Objectives: The original charge of the project in 1969 was “to create a central register of film material likely to be of interest to historians in much the same way as the National Register of Archives had done for the country’s primary written documents”. Though the project has evolved in several stages, the original purpose is still in tact. Each stage in the project is to aid historians and researchers by digitizing film and making it more searchable. Currently, the project contains 180,000 cinemagazine and newsreel stories (1910-83) linked to production documents and films. 

“News on Screen is a record of what British newsreels and cinemagazines were produced, not what physically exists.”

Review: Highlighting the project’s history, News on Screen has touted several different names, but the aim has generally been in the same direction since its founding. In 1969 the project started in attempts to archive films with the same type of archival treatment as traditional documents. The collection started with 30,000 newsreels and cinemagazines to archive. From 1995-1999 the project expanded to creating a computerized database of the collection that began in the 1960s. The collection grew to around 160,000 news pieces from 21 British newsreels and magazines. From 1999-2003 the project scanned a donation of 80,000 commentary scripts, cameraman’s dope sheets, assignment sheets, shot lists and other original documentation from Reuters Television, British Paramount News, Gaumont British News and Universal News. Between 2004 and 2007 the project was awarded enhancement grants to carry out research about newsreels and cinemography with the data collection. In the last six years the JISC provided records dating as early as 1910 and the metadata between JISC’s News film Online and News on Screen allowed the two project’s metadata to combine and allow the user to search easily between the two databases. The latest update was OCR-ing the production documents for easier search ability. [While I didn’t list all the different grants, they have had a myriad of them and their history section tells about them here.]

A short description of the site’s layout and hierarchy is in order to understand its organization, sources, and user-friendliness. The former British Universities Newsreel Scripts Project is now called News on Screen; it falls under the British Universities Film & Video Council’s website. Since the project is centered around archiving film and related production documents, News on Screen searches film and texts from the BUFVC and outside sources like British Pathe, Movietone, JISC MediaHub, and Roundabout. The aforementioned sources provide the content that News on Screen indexes for search through their site.

 Upon going to the News on Screen tab within the BUFVC’s site, there are several search options and those are described in the following bullet points.

  • “Search” – searches the entire database in addition to subsections listed below. You can search through one of the below sections only; you can search through one or multiple of the cross referenced databases; you can search for topics, names, places, years, issue, etc. There are a high level of potential filters. 
  • “Production documents” – assignment sheets, dope sheets, shot lists, commentary lists, and souvenir programs and ephemera. (What are dope sheets, assignment sheet, etc…?) These documents reveal a part of the production narrative that goes unseen by the final film product. These documents show what parts of the raw film the producer and cameraman decided to cut out of final product, why they made those decisions, and/or who affected those decisions. 
  • “Roundabout” – a 1970s monthly, technicolor series designed as soft propaganda by Britain to display Britain to south and southeast Asia as modern, progressive, world leaders; and how Britain was helping Asia realize their own successful modernization. 
  • “Oral histories” – interviews of five cameramen who filmed during the Second World War. The interviews discuss censorship, working culture of the film/cinematography industry, and how the industry has changed over time.
  • “Learn more” – links to DVDs, abstracts, articles, books, multimedia collections on a topic, and more sponsored by the BUFVC. 

It is important to note that this project does not have links to all the listed films or production documents. This is an index of what was published/produced and has links where possible to uploaded content, but sometimes a search result may be as simple as a title with no linked content.

So, after all the nuts and bolts, how well does it work? This is an exceptional tool for finding primary documents/films by either browsing or advanced search. The large database sponsored by news producers, arts and humanities councils, social science councils, and British governmental agencies makes it possible to find sources from the last one hundred years. It took some time to understand what was part of the News on Screen and what was part of the other projects on the BUFVC website. It also took time to navigate the search engine to find what I wanted. My suggestion is to search more generally then browse several pages of results; because my advanced searches yielded few results. Also, it was annoying to only have a linked homepage of which site to go to find a video instead of a direct link. For example, I may find a title I want in News on Screen. I click on the given link, but it only goes to a homepage of a cross referenced site. Then I had to search for the title I found in News on Screen in the website to which I was redirected. Fortunately, every time I searched I was able to find the video in the new webpage. The images, videos, and sounds are high quality with perfect ready-to-copy-and-paste citation information for researchers. Pros include saved searches and you can easily move your specific search into the larger database of the BUFVC. My most urgent suggestion for improvement is to change the structure of the content by reorganizing content and their parent pages. So the David Glean and the Film and the Historian pages need their own parent pages because those are different projects. Lastly, Roundabout does not need its own subcategory in the main webpage; take away the icon on the main page and let people search for it, or make the JISC MediaHub, Pathe, and other databases have their own icon on the main page too. The site’s hierarchy needs to accurately relay the relationship of the content and page headings. 

As far as the scholarship and content is concerned, this project would not be possible without technology. Sure, a major part of this was simply scanning documents to the computer, that was the early stage; but the indexing across multiple databases provides a mega source for finding newsreels and production documents. In turn, the contribution to the field is an archive for British newsreels, cinematography, films, and production documents archived in a similar style to traditional documents, which makes researching film more doable. OCR provides excellent search capabilities. Multimedia layouts and linked contents provide enriching sources to sought after documents and topics. Newsreels and production documents provide important pieces to historical narratives in the 21st century. In the scope of history, film is an emerging source of historical documentation. So having an index of published and unpublished films and newsreels in conjunction with commentaries and directions from the cameramen and producers gives us another part of historical narratives that neither text alone nor film alone can provide. 

Open access: The “Oral histories” section with the interviews requires a membership or subscription to the BECTU (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph, and Theatre Union) to access the audio files. Though, the corresponding production documents to the sound clips of the interviews are open access. The “Roundabout” section is open access as of late, provided by the Joint Information Systems Committee. When doing a search of the entire database, it depends on if the cross-referenced websites are open access on whether or not you can view the video clips. Content from JISC Media Hub access is limited to subscribing UK colleges and universities. 

Expertise required: Understanding of basic browser operations is necessary. I recommended having a framework and knowledge of databases for retrieving desired results.

Similar projects: The United States’ Library of Congress provides a similar service of film archives, but their sources are a different type than that of the News on Screen. Also, there is not a focus on production documents in the film archives in the US LOC.

News film Online was the original name of the JISC project that cooperates with News on Screen. The NfO site was disconnected but redirects to JISC MediaHub, which is inaccessible without a UK college or university subscription. 

Other reviews: If you know of other reviews, please comment on this page.

1 thought on “News on Screen

  1. Susanna Coleman

    Of course when I heard “British newsreel” I thought about barrage balloon news footage. I clicked on one of the results I found and was excited to see both commentary on the production and links to a video of the reel. I wasn’t able to view the video without an account with the video host, but I’m glad to know these videos exist. I also like that you can narrow results to videos that are viewable online. I even found two videos/DVDs, including a drama/documentary on barrage balloons! More material for my DH project!

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