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Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

ACT UP Archive Goes to Harvard

Act Up campaign  

A logo associated with AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, an influential activist group whose archives have recently been acquired by the Harvard College Library.


October 17, 2011 – The ACT UP Oral History Project Archive, a collection of video interviews and written transcripts that document the work of ACT UP, one of the earliest and most high profile activist groups working to address the AIDS epidemic, has been acquired by Harvard University. The work of film-makers Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard, the interviews are a unique resource for understanding a turbulent period in American history and the early days of the global AIDS epidemic.

“This was a global health crisis that had to be understood as a crisis and it was the in-your-face activism of ACT UP that helped to do that,” said Alison Scott, Librarian for North America and Senior Collection Development Librarian for Widener Library. “The only place to get the on-the-ground, in-the-trenches information about how they functioned as an organization and as individuals working under tremendous pressure is from the people who lived it. As a body of historical documents that demand to be preserved and made accessible for scholarship of all kinds, this material is incredibly important.”

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Founded by a group of New York City activists in 1987, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, was created to protest the government’s slow response to the burgeoning AIDS pandemic and raise awareness of the disease through social activism. ACT UP chapters quickly sprang up across the country, placing the group at the forefront of activists working to address AIDS and AIDS-related health issues.

Harvard’s acquisition of the Archive grew out of an exhibition on AIDS activism mounted more than a year ago at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and curated by Helen Molesworth, then head of the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Harvard Art Museums. The exhibition included several interview excerpts that played on continuous loops. Following the exhibition, the project’s producers contacted the Library to explore whether Harvard could provide an archival home for the interviews and other materials.

The Archive consists of more than 100 video interviews with surviving ACT UP members. Another 112 interviews are planned, and will be added to the Archive as they are completed. The interviews exist in a variety of formats, including edited interviews, original digital video tapes, back-up digital copies as well as Quicktime and MP4 files – all of which are included in the Archive. Interview transcripts, in Microsoft Word and PDF formats, are also included.

Beyond its historical relevance, the Archive is notable for another reason. As the first “born digital” audio/visual materials collected by Harvard’s libraries, the interviews and transcripts raise a host of questions about how to preserve digital materials while ensuring library users will have access to them. Answering those questions, Scott said, will provide Harvard’s libraries with both extraordinary opportunities and technological challenges.

“There are a number of questions that come with the acquisition of this material,” Scott said. “First and foremost among them is what is it that we are promising to preserve? We are not promising to preserve the CD-ROM discs or the hard drives on which this material is delivered to us. What we are promising is to preserve the content, not the container.”

In the short-term, Scott said, that will mean creating an interim system for allowing library patrons to use the Archive for research. Long-term, it will mean the development of a system that allows students and researchers to access streaming video online, much in the same way they now access digitized materials.

“I expect we will collect more and more materials that come in these formats, so we need to know how to save them, and to deliver them in reliable ways,” Scott said. “Ultimately, we are doing the same thing that Houghton Library (Harvard’s primary rare book and manuscript repository) does with any unique, irreplaceable collection. This is a unique documentation of a fundamentally important moment of crisis and activism that would otherwise wink out of existence if we don’t take care of it.”