Really big things often start small. That’s so true of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the nation’s second-largest moving-image repository behind the U.S. Library of Congress.

The archive, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, wasn’t on the agenda in the 1960s, when a few film lovers — UCLA graduate students and staff members with a hippie-era, anarchical mindset — began collecting copies of movies they wanted to save, including flammable nitrate prints that the studios were about to discard.

The fledgling UCLA group, determined that film culture would not be lost, operated more or less outside the purview of the university. Filmmaker and former archive intern Alex Cox recalls, “Most of the major stages in our growth were accomplished by stealth.” Archive co-founder and Professor Emeritus Howard Suber M.A. ’66, Ph.D. ’68 refers to this time as the “Buccaneer Era.”

The group’s dedication was a key factor in the archive’s phenomenal growth, along with UCLA’s proximity to major studios, which were glad to unload their holdings. Huge numbers of prints acquired by the archive had to be held until funding was found for preservation.

But an emphasis on preservation leaped forward in 1974 with the arrival of Robert Rosen, who would later serve as dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Rosen, a historian, saw films as “historical documents that embody collective narratives.” He saw preservation as integral to ensuring that students can see “how past masters of the craft solved storytelling problems.” Letting films fade away was a “cultural crime,” he said.

Three years later, Robert Gitt became UCLA’s first preservation officer and created a program that is “respected around the world,” according to current archive director Jan-Christopher Horak. Over the years, Gitt supervised the preservation of about 360 features and hundreds of shorts.

By 2002, UCLA was elevating the entire field of preservation and began a program in Moving Image Archive Studies.

Today, transition to the digital age has begun, with the creation of portals for online delivery of moving image content. But dedication to preserving analog images on film remains. Print storage has moved from old vaults in Hollywood to an ultramodern archival facility in Santa Clarita.

The archive’s holdings are in constant demand, as for the recent acclaimed film Trumbo, which includes newsreel footage from UCLA’s collection.

Every day, filmmakers and fans alike, as well as students and scholars, benefit from the dogged determination of those unstoppable founders decades ago.