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HIV in the Classroom: Making AIDS Activist History a Part of U.S. History

A Conversation With Jim Hubbard, Co-Director of the ACT UP Oral History Project

March 29, 2013

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One of the things I read on the ACT UP Oral History Project's website is that you're both in the New York and San Francisco Public Library Systems. How did you get into those library systems?

JH: Let's start with the New York Public Library system. I had a relationship with the New York Public Library (NYPL) because, around the period of 1995 to 2000, I put together a collection of AIDS activist videos for the NYPL. This was from an idea of Patrick Moore's. Patrick thought there was all this amazing footage that was sitting in people's closets and under people's beds that needed to be preserved. The history of AIDS activism was on this videotape. At the time, he was the head of the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, and he got the funding and made the connection to the library.


And I -- well, I did two things. First, I actually did a survey to find out where the best place for this material would be. And, in talking to archives and libraries and museums around the country, I found that there was only one institution that could deal with the material, and that was because there was a huge amount of material. And also, there had to be an interest in gay-related and AIDS-related material. And that place was the New York Public Library. There were over 1,000 hours of AIDS-related video material. One filmmaker alone, James Wentzy, had over 750 hours of videotape. That's a huge amount for an institution to deal with at one time. They really wanted it and they were interested. So, we had that relationship.

And then, when we started doing the interviews for the ACT UP Oral History Project, I went to William Stingone, who is the curator of the Division of Archives and Manuscripts, who asked if we wanted to donate the ACT UP Oral History Project to the NYPL. And that's because as a filmmaker who's been dealing with the preservation of video for a long time, I knew there had to be a preservation aspect built into the project. We have this sense that film and video will always be here -- and that has been made even a stronger feeling with the Internet. You know, you can turn on your computer, and you can find any movie on there. But the stuff is actually very fragile and needs to be taken care of properly or it won't last. So, we needed to find an institution that would be around in 100 years and would take care of it. And the library was very generous in offering to do that.

The situation has changed quite a bit, because the ACT UP Oral History Project has now been acquired by Harvard University. The tapes that are in the New York Public Library will stay there, the tapes that are in the San Francisco Public Library -- those are actually only access tapes, they're not archive material -- those will stay there. All the original tapes and archival copies, the hard drives on which we've captured all this material, all the ancillary audio and visual material, will go to the Harvard College Library and will be preserved there. And they've promised to put all the interviews on their servers so that they will be available to people.

How has the ACT UP Oral History Project worked with schools to initiate AIDS activism history education?

We know that lots of schools are using it. I wish it were, in some way, more systematized. We're producing this raw material, and our hope is that people will use it in lots of different ways. We know that it's being used in history classes in Yale, in Harvard; Debb Levine wrote her Ph.D. thesis on the ACT UP Oral History Project at the Department of Performance Studies at New York University (NYU). It's being used in classes at Simmons College, geared towards nurses. I just did a screening of United in Anger at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, Calif., which is a university that's geared toward medical education for people in the medical field.

I've done a couple of presentations in high schools classes, and the film has been shown in many high school classes. I get emails all the time asking questions about the material from students who are writing about it. We know that it's being used, but we don't have a systematic way of tracking it. But we know that over 100,000 transcripts have been downloaded from the website. I haven't looked at it recently, but there were 35,000 to 40,000 views on the website. People from all around the world are reading the transcripts and looking at the video tapes.

What do you think are some of the ultimate goals of the ACT UP Oral History Project? What is the end that you're working toward?

think the end point is to put ACT UP into mainstream U.S. history. Here are the most important civil rights movements in the United States -- you had the African-American civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay movement, and then there was the AIDS activist movement. So it belongs right there in the middle.

It really changed the way this country dealt not only with people with AIDS, but people with all diseases. It fundamentally changed the health care system in the United States -- as bad as it is, it would be much worse. It changed the way people dealt with their doctors. It changed the way funding was allocated for research for all diseases. It changed the drug approval process in this country. It fundamentally changed the way Americans look at queer people. Those things alone are an argument for it being part of U.S. history. If you have a class on the history of the United States of the 20th century, or the second half of the 20th century, it should include ACT UP, whether at the high school or college level.

I should add that, in terms of United in Anger, we have a study guide that's specifically designed for classroom use. The coding is not quite finished. It's in beta on the website. That's about to go up; and the educational DVD of United in Anger is available, so schools can buy it.

You and Sarah have been working together on this project since June 2001. She's a university professor, you a filmmaker. How do you work as a team?

The way it's set up when we do interviews is that Sarah asks the questions. James Wentzy is our cameraperson. He's been involved in ACT UP since 1990. He's the one, if you remember, that has 750 hours of footage. He's one of the unsung heroes of the AIDS activist movement. He just has this incredible archive of material. And so he does the main camera. And I actually have a secondary camera through each of the interviews, and I do all the office work.

How do you find everyone for the interviews? Is it more connections? Do you rely on friends of friends who were in ACT UP?

Well, we do. But it's also self-selective. Anyone who wants to be interviewed, all they have to do is send an email to and get on the list. We've done 154; we have interviews scheduled for early next month. We have about 80 people on the list waiting to be interviewed. We're hoping to get through that backlog in two to three years. Anyone can be interviewed, it's entirely self-selective, but it will take a while before we get to you. [laughs]

Do you fly out all over to do them, or do people come here?

We interview people in their apartments. The vast majority of them have been in New York City. We've done a number of trips. We've gone to San Francisco and L.A. a couple of times. We flew down to Tennessee to interview people. We interviewed Larry Kramer up in his house in the country, in Connecticut. There are a couple of other people who have moved out of the city. But, it's ACT UP New York. We felt that there was only so much we could do, so we had to focus it.

Also, we felt that, while ACT UP was a national and international movement, it was very much locally based, and we have encouraged and helped people in other cities to start doing oral histories of ACT UP people and other oral histories, as well. Just for instance, the situation in San Francisco is so complicated, that someone in San Francisco should do that. We're not ethnographers, we're not historians, we're not anthropologists. We are members of a community preserving our own history, so it's important to stay with that history. But, definitely, we help and encourage people to do it in other places, as well.

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This article was provided by TheBody.
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