British Pathe Develops Huge Historic Picture Archive

British Pathe is offering free access to a digitized collection of more than 12 million historic photographs from its 20th century cinema newsreel archive.

Archivists and technicians at ITN, which now operates the British Pathe library, have created the images by re-scanning the newsreel’s 3,500 hours of 35 millimeter film. The collection consists of one still image from every second of film, ranging from monochrome images of the Boer War in nineteenth-century Africa to pictures of the Beatles on the set for the movie “Help.”

Images are displayed as a “storyboard” of thumbnails. Since the images were digitized from motion pictures, a full page of thumbnails represents about 50 seconds of material from a video clip. To enlarge an image, simply click on its thumbnail. Images are displayed in pop-up windows, so if you’re using a pop-up blocker you’ll need to disable it to view images you select.

The site offers free search and preview storyboards for anyone to view. To save a preview image, simply right click it and save it to your hard drive. Preview files display a large copyright notice, but can be used for personal or educational purposes.

Enhanced high resolution versions of the images are also available for web publishing and use in power point presentations for a fee.

The site offers both basic search and advanced search capabilities. Advanced search offers a number of useful filters, including media characteristics (black and white or color, sound or silent picture) production date, and so on.

Advanced search also offers text filters that scan the metadata that has been created for each clip. This text information includes a description, title, keywords and a summary, and is also displayed with the storyboard thumbnails of images in results.

There’s also a fun “lucky dip” button that randomly selects 20 items from the archive for preview.

The process of digitizing the images took about three years to complete and required a ratio of compression from 35mm film to low resolution MPEG-4 of about 100,000:1.

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