The dead were and are not. Their place knows them no more and is ours today… The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing into another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow.

G.M. Trevelyan[1]

While chatting during a brew break one day, Jonathan, a member of the team, said to me: ‘What’s the point in having archives if the public can’t access them?’ This statement neatly encapsulates the principles of archival work: an archive should store the actuality of everyday for posterity.

The North West Film Archive (NWFA) began as a research project at Manchester Polytechnic in 1977 to chart the region’s film industries; it is now one of the UK’S leading moving image archives with over 50,000 titles ranging from cinema newsreels to home movies. The collection contains both amateur and professional reels – predominantly amateur, covering a vast scope of subject matters yet retaining a particular focus on socio-cultural issues such as local traditions and community activities. The NWFA is ultimately a social history project. Their central aim is to save the region’s filmed heritage, carrying out a ‘history from below’ to recover lost or marginalised voices. The NWFA is part of the Library Service Special Collections at Manchester Metropolitan University, and as a public-facing institution their core principles are preservation and access. To this end, public outreach projects mobilise reclaimed images to reconnect the present with the region’s rich past. Regional film history is vital in representing the lives of working-class people, serving as a striking counterpoint to official narratives.

During my placement I worked as an Archive Assistant with the Acquisition and Documentation team, cataloguing and indexing films and readying them for accession into the main collection and for display in the library’s public viewing pods. Having previously studied History at undergraduate level, this role represented the perfect combination of film and history, bringing together a personal and intellectual interest in the nexus between art and sociology. As a postgraduate student completing the MA in Film Studies, this was an invaluable opportunity to experience the cultural sector and apply academic understanding to a professional context. As Friedrich Engels wrote: ‘Practice without theory is blind, theory without practice is sterile.’ The two inform and enhance each other. My time at the NWFA facilitated a ‘demystification of professional expertise’[2] whereby I gained an insight into how film operates on a broader, industrial level. I not only learnt new practical and technical skills but, more importantly, I spent time in a dynamic working environment with like-minded people, which gave me the chance to pick their brains and see how a potential career in this field might shape up. 

Central Library and the Cenotaph, St Peter’s Square, 1968. Source: https://www.nwfa.mmu.ac.uk/nat/nowandthen6.htm

Professionally recognised as the public home for the moving image heritage of the North West of England, the NWFA ‘rescues and ensures the survival of moving images for the education and enjoyment of the region’s people – both today and in the future.’[3] This reflects the strong humanist thread running through digital archives. Joan Schwartz and Terry Cook summarise that

[m]emory, like history, is rooted in archives. Without archives, memory falters, knowledge of accomplishments fades, pride in a shared past dissipates. Archives counter these losses. Archives contain the evidence of what went before… Archives validate our experiences, our perceptions, our narratives, our stories. Archives are our memories.[4] 

The NWFA’s online collection and the vaults, housed at the magnificent Central Library, contain boundless stories; it is a rich resource not just for students and academics but for every member of society. The NWFA serves a crucial purpose in contemporary Manchester by shaping how people view their region, their history, and themselves.

Charlie O’Brien is a student on the MA in Film Studies. He participated in the SALC Work Placement module organised by the ICP.


[1] G.M. Trevelyan, ‘Autobiography of an Historian’, An Autobiography and Other Essays, (London: Spottiswoode, Ballantyne & Co., 1949).

[2] Donald A. Schön, The Reflective Practitioner, (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 345.

[3] https://www.specialcollections.mmu.ac.uk/nwfa.php

[4] Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook, ‘Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory’, Archival Science, 2, (2002), p. 18.