Thursday, August 21, 2014

SAA 2014: preserving and making accessible HIV/AIDS history

I'm back home and feeling a lot better than I did last week, but I'm still in the process of settling in at home, getting back up to speed at work, and tending to some family matters. As a result, I'm going to post about this year's joint meeting of the Council of State Archivists, the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators, and the Society of American Archivists as my schedule permits. Archivy is a relay, not a sprint, and it's more important to pass the baton correctly than to hand it off quickly. (That having been said, I was really under the weather last week and my notes and recollections are a little jumbled. Apologies in advance for any omissions or inaccuracies.)

Last Friday morning, I was planning to attend session 410, "Beyond the Floppy Disk: Rescuing Electronic Records from Complex Systems," but the room was stuffed to capacity by the time I arrived. I could have slipped into session 401, "Digital Forensics," but I didn't think I had the presence of mind needed for particular topic. I instead ducked into session 407, "Documenting the Epidemic: Preserving and Making Accessible HIV/AIDS History." I've long had a personal and professional interest in this topic, the compelling (and unabashedly partial) How to Survive a Plague rekindled it, and I'm glad that I had the opportunity to sit in on this session.

Robin Chandler (University of California, Santa Cruz) capably led this session, which took the form of a panel discussion in which participants furnished overviews of their institutions' holdings, identified gaps in documentation, and broadly applicable lessons (e.g., the value of collaboration) they learned as they sought to document the history of HIV/AIDS.

Vicky Harden (retired, National Institutes of Health Office of History) discussed the oral history interviews she conducted with National Institutes of Health personnel who were involved in HIV/AIDS research and her involvement in the American Association for the History of Medicine's AIDS History Group. She noted that, owing to budget cuts and other factors, the U.S. Centers for Disease, which played a pivotal role in tracking the emergence and spread of HIV infection and AIDS in the United States, has not sought to gather archival materials or conduct oral history interviews documenting its HIV/AIDS work.

Polina Ilieva (University of California, San Francisco) discussed the development of the AIDS History Project, which from its outset in 1987 sought to document the crisis in all of its facets and from all perspectives. Its collections include materials created by community-based organizations, clinical and research units, and individual activists, clinicians, researchers, social scientists, science journalists, and people with AIDS. In addition, the project captures content found on relevant websites. Ilieva stressed that, owing to the speed with which community organizations are created, merge, alter course, and cease operations, archivists seeking to document HIV/AIDS must establish and sustain ongoing relationships with creators/donors; she hopes to close some of the gaps in her repository's holdings by tracking some of these shifts in the organizational landscape. In addition, she indicated that we need more oral history interviews with (presumably non-activist) people who are HIV positive or have AIDS.

Ginny Roth (National Library of Medicine, Prints and Photographs Collection) indicated that her repository's holdings, which span four decades, include posters and other ephemera relating to safe sex, myths about HIV transmission, human rights, and other matters. These materials target multiple audiences (e.g., gay men, intravenous drug users) and are in multiple languages. However, the collection does not include photographs documenting past or current activism.

Michael Oliviera (ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives) stated that his institution has a wide array of materials relating to HIV/AIDS, among them: periodicals, records documenting the first theatrical production relating to AIDS, the International Gay and Lesbian Archives' AIDS History Project collection (over 200 cu. ft.), and the organizational records of ACT UP Los Angeles and Treatment Action Group. ONE holds few oral histories and collections documenting the experiences of people of color.

Jason Baumann (New York Public Library, or NYPL) focused on his repository's recent exhibit, Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism, which consisted almost exclusively of materials drawn from its extensive holdings of the organizational records of activist organizations and the personal papers of activists, artists, political leaders, and other individuals. The exhibit exposed significant tensions between those seeking to understand and interpret the history of HIV/AIDS and some of those focused on the suffering and death the disease still causes. ACT UP protested its opening on the grounds that it gave people the impression that HIV/AIDS was a thing of the past, and two young Canadian activists incorporated reproductions of two posters featured in the exhibit into a new poster entitled "Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me" -- much to the dismay of the creators of the original posters.

NYPL dealt with the uproar by, among other things, co-hosting a symposium that brought together the creators of the original posters and the creators of "Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me." Although he didn't explicitly identify this experience as a lesson learned, I can't help but think that it is. Archivists (myself included) tend to be introverted, mindful of their subordinate position within institutional power structures, and unnerved by the prospect of controversy. However, we sometimes need to treat controversy as an opportunity to engage, learn, and enable others to do the same. If we can't acknowledge the existence of difference or probe the status and power differentials that give rise to archival silences, we can't document society equitably and comprehensively.

Baumann did identify as a lesson learned something I found a bit surprising: NYPL's customary donors were not willing to fund the processing of collections relating to HIV/AIDS activism and the activist groups themselves were focused on treatment, human rights, and other pressing concerns, but NYPL found that corporations were quite willing to do so.

The panelists wrapped up the session by discussing the possibility of jointly developing and administering a survey that would identify all of the archival collections that in some way documented HIV/AIDS in the United States. They agreed that this would be a mammoth undertaking, but it seems that serious discussions are underway. I for one would like to see this project get off the ground.

Image: shadow cast by Alexander Calder's "Red Polygons" (c. 1950), Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, 16 August 2014.

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