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Directions for Digital HIV/AIDS History

Scholars are increasingly addressing the history of HIV/AIDS. I recently participated in the Journal of American History’s Interchange, “HIV/AIDS and U.S. History,” and elsewhere I have argued that it’s time to teach AIDS history. As we do so, the methods of digital history offer new ways to chronicle the epidemic and place it in historical context.

Simply put, digital history leverages the advantages of computer software and internet connectivity to change the way that we do historical research, and the way we communicate that research to the public. Computers are actually pretty stupid, but they’re good at doing things that would take humans a long time to do ourselves, such as counting the number of times a word appears in a book. They also allow us to pull from far-flung sources, and to collaborate with scholars from across the country and around the world.

Here are just a few of the ways that digital methods can enrich the study of HIV/AIDS history:

Digital Archiving

A condom incorporated within the words "True Love”

Advertisement by the State of California AIDS Education Campaign. Lithograph. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library via Flickr

Digitizing archival materials makes them available to researchers all over the world and has been a boon to historians of all fields. Historians of HIV/AIDS can browse digitized collections of AIDS and safe sex education posters from the Wellcome Library, the University of Rochester, and the University of Minnesota. Some of the AIDS materials catalogued through a recent grant to the University of California, San Francisco, GLBT Historical Society, and San Francisco Public Library will be made available online.

However, digital archiving is not just about making collections accessible—it’s also about building them. Using platforms like Omeka, developed by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, historians can display primary source collections online with metadata, such as keyword tags, that make it easy for users to navigate among individual items. These can include traditional fodder for historical research, such as photographs and correspondence, as well as “born digital” items from about the web, such as YouTube videos. Omeka also makes it possible for online users to scan and upload files, photographs, and ephemera from their personal collections as well. Thus, such projects not only present the past to the public, but the projects can invite them to become active participants in its preservation as well.

In this way historians can build digital archival collections that have no analogue in the physical world. For example, I used Omeka to build the African American AIDS History Project, which includes interviews, materials collected from oral history narrators, items gathered from the open web, and crowd-contributed items. It’s worth noting that soliciting items from users online requires a certain amount of buy-in from the communities whose history is being preserved. Historians building such archives may find it necessary to use social media, blogs, and other web tools to publicize their projects, as well as to establish trust with the users who might contribute their personal collections.

Text Analysis

Scholars can use computer software to comb through and analyze large collections of text, as Michelle Moravec of Rosemont College has done with the six-volume History of Woman Suffrage. Historians of HIV/AIDS could similarly look for linguistic and conceptual patterns in AIDS reportage, academic journals, or the oral histories produced by the AIDS Oral History Project and the ACT UP Oral History Project. We might mine abstracts from AIDS-focused journals to see how the clinical language used to talk about AIDS has changed over time or analyze the affective content of interviews from the AIDS Oral History Project and the ACT UP Oral History Project. Here we could ask if narrators describe their engagement with the epidemic differently based on personal characteristics, such as gender, race, or age.

Network Analysis

Network analysis allows us to map connections between texts or historical actors that would be difficult to conceptualize on our own. For example, in the larger field of digital humanities, Franco Moretti has mapped interactions among characters in Hamlet, concluding that the play dramatizes the transfer of sovereignty from the kingly court to the bureaucratic state. Historians of HIV/AIDS might map citations in scholarly literature on the epidemic to shed light on how knowledge about AIDS was constructed over time. We might also trace connections among AIDS activists, according to their membership in groups like ACT UP or attendance at major conferences. At the very least, this would help us to visualize the connections between AIDS activism and other movements, as Tamar Carroll has done using traditional archival methods. The work of extracting citations from academic work can more or less be automated, but no ready dataset of AIDS activists exists. However, one could be built collaboratively, either by a group of historians based on archival research, or in an open fashion by users online, or both.


Finally, digital methods can help us to map the historical HIV/AIDS epidemic. Internet users can visualize the present-day epidemic through AIDSVu, a project out of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. However, no similar tool exists to let us visualize the epidemic over a significant length of time. And again, no large dataset to support such a project exists, meaning that one would have to be created out of archived local surveillance reports. I’ve run across these in different archives, and they could be used to create visualizations of historical surveillance data at the local level. A crowd-contributed dataset would distribute some of that effort and allow us to assemble a project covering different parts of the country and several decades. We could combine that data with other information, such as socioeconomic indicators, to better understand the ways that HIV/AIDS as an epidemic has been structured and driven by inequality. The final result might look like something between the Mapping Inequality project, which overlays historical “security maps” from the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation onto modern-day cities, and Jason Heppler’s maps of pollution and land use in the San Francisco Bay Area.

These suggestions are meant to point toward innovative approaches that will allow us to tell more complex and complete stories about the history of HIV/AIDS. But nothing about the field makes it uniquely amenable to the use of digital methods—these can be adapted broadly for the study of other histories as well.

Dan Royles is an assistant professor of history at Florida International University in Miami. His forthcoming book, To Make the Wounded Whole: African American Responses to HIV/AIDS (University of North Carolina Press), examines the diverse ways that black communities have responded to the HIV/AIDS epidemic over the last thirty-five years. Follow him on Twitter @danroyles.