By Chris Olver, Project Archivist
Until 2020, many people living in the United Kingdom had not experienced living through a pandemic. In a bid to understand Covid-19, many media outlets drew comparisons to the Great Influenza epidemic of 1918-1920, yet it was a pandemic from more recent history which showed how an emerging disease could cause the widespread fear, confusion, misinformation, community spirit and activism which we now associate with Covid-19.
The pandemic I am describing is that of HIV/AIDS, which from the 1980s to 1990s was referred to as the AIDS crisis. The disease was, and still is, one of the most challenging viruses encountered by medicine, science, and society. More than 36 million people are living with HIV/AIDS today and over 100,000 people live with the virus in the UK.
The magnitude of how HIV/AIDS was perceived in the UK in the 1980s, can be seen by the UK government’s launch of a national public information campaign, “AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance”, in 1987, which delivered a leaflet about AIDS to every household in the UK, and broadcast the memorable ‘Iceberg and Tombstone’ television advertising campaign:
The study of the history of HIV/AIDS matters because of its continued relevance to understanding medicine and public health. It continues to provide us with an understanding of the behaviour of people when faced with a dangerous infectious disease and provides a memorial towards those who were lost or lost loved ones during the pandemic. Archive collections across the United Kingdom provide the bedrock of primary sources in the study of the pandemic. They have immense research value to those studying the history of sexuality, science and medicine, and social and cultural history to name just a few.
It was with this in mind that West Sussex Record Office applied for funding to conduct a survey of the HIV/AIDS archive records in England and Wales. The 2-year project is funded by Annabel’s Foundation, set up by the founders of the HIV/AIDS charity, AVERT, whose archives are held at the WSRO.
The project aims to facilitate the study and research of the global pandemic of HIV/AIDS by identifying records of historical interest in archival repositories and private hands and advising, where requested, on their long-term preservation.
The survey will collect information about UK archive holdings through meetings, questionnaires, and site visits. The survey will include records dating from the origins of the pandemic up to the present day and will include archive material of multiple formats, including digital records, film and sound archives, oral histories, and ephemera.
The project began in January 2023 and will be running until January 2025, and consists of four phases:
|Phase 1||February – June 2023||surveying collections of HIV/AIDS records which are already held by archive services|
|Phase 2||April – November 2023||surveying organisations and individuals which were involved in different aspects of HIV/AIDS work, and which may hold archives|
|Phase 3||November 2023 – October 2024||site visits|
|Phase 4||October 2024 – January 2025||report writing|
The survey will initially focus on finding substantial HIV/AIDS archive holdings in established archive services. This will provide an overview of what the current holdings are in archives, some of the accessibility issues and help to identify potential gaps in the collection, which may be because material is held in private hands.
The second part of the survey will look to identify HIV/AIDS historical material held by individuals or organisations. These collections will be found by reaching out through heritage, academic research, and HIV/AIDS organisation networks. Details of these collections will be recorded and through meetings and questionnaires establish their contents, condition, and plans for the material.
Starting from 2024, the survey will conduct a series of site visits and remote viewings to assess these private collections and the Project Archivist will provide on-hand cataloguing, storage, preservation and accessibility advice to the owners of these collections.
Finally, the report of the survey will be published online alongside the results of the HIV/AIDS survey. Further recommendations will be outlined as to how best to preserve this important history and future projects to improve their accessibility.
The project aims to provide a published detailed report of HIV/AIDS archives in the UK to be published online on the WSRO website and circulated to archives with existing collections, and organisations interested in the history of HIV/AIDS. In addition to this, a free to use dataset of all the HIV/AIDS collections identifed by the project will be made available on the website on the first time.
Over the course of the project, regular updates on the progress of the survey and case-studies of some of the archive collections encountered will be documented here and on the WRSO social media feed.
Introducing the team (me)
My name is Chris Olver, I am excited to be working on this project having long wondered what happened to some of the archive records associated with the epidemic in United Kingdom when I previously catalogued the HIV/AIDS collections at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) back in 2014. My interest in the subject of the history of HIV/AIDS, come about partially from my academic interest in the history of medicine, which I studied to MA level, and through working with HIV/AIDS collections at LSHTM and more recently the London Metropolitan Archives, where I catalogued the filmed interviews created by the National HIV Story Trust.
If you are interested in finding out more about the project, then please do feel free to contact me. I am particularly keen to hear from people who may know of are aware of possible private HIV/AIDS archives. I can be contacted on email@example.com or by telephone on 03302226284.