A young woman with long feathered hair in a classroom.

Education in the Eighties: Preserving HIV/AIDS Audiovisuals

By Sarah Eilers ~

This year, the Historical Audiovisuals Program at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), with support from the Exhibition Program, digitally preserved 55 U-Matic tapes containing HIV/AIDS titles from the 1980s. This is one of many ongoing efforts at the Library to identify and preserve content documenting HIV/AIDS including the newly digitized National Commission on AIDS archives and the annual December additions to the HIV/AIDS web archive.

What’s a U-Matic?

A black plastic cassette case with a printed Sony label and handwritten content information.
A U-matic Cassette Tape

Sony developed the U-Matic tape format around 1970. Though initially intended for the consumer market—as VHS would be later—the videotapes and players are bulky and were expensive. Sony shifted its marketing to the educational and commercial sectors, where the format was widely used in the 1970s and 1980s. NLM holds thousands of training and informational U-Matics on a variety of topics including child development, mental health, surgical procedures, and Hansen’s disease.

Memory institutions are under time pressure to reformat these tapes in order to preserve the content and make it available for research. Like other forms of magnetic media, they are not terribly durable. The components of the tape break down, become dirty or sticky, and simply can’t be played back reliably after a few decades. Paper made 500 years ago is much hardier, as is film stock from, say, the 1930s, if kept in the right temperature and humidity conditions. Fifty years from now you’ll still be able to read Johannes de Ketham’s Fasciculus Medicinae printed in 1500, but 1983’s Nursing Care for Patients with AIDS was already deteriorating when our preservation of it began.

Why Preserve It?

While no one would consult this content to actively treat a patient today, the material on NLM U-Matics is regularly examined by scholars, health care practitioners, documentary film producers, and others seeking to understand medical knowledge and practice from a historical perspective. The AIDS epidemic has taken nearly 40 million lives worldwide and at its apex shook society and medicine to the core. The visual content and first-person viewpoints seen on these aging tapes have much to teach us and are valuable source material for future research.

Fear, Anxiety, AIDS

A steep San Francisco street.
Those People : AIDS in the Public Mind, ca. 1986
National Library of Medicine #8800548A

Several of the 1980s titles preserved in this batch of U-Matics deal with risk, rumor, and the hazards of a paucity of information about a terrifying illness. In the early days of HIV/AIDS research and treatment, the disease and its modes of transmission were not well understood. There was plenty of fear among the public as well as concern among health care providers who treated the sick. How risky was it? Could a housekeeper cleaning a hospital room get sick? Should a pregnant woman spend time with her recently-diagnosed brother? In Those People: AIDS in the Public Mind (1986), we hear the answer one woman got. “Every doctor I talked to said that I shouldn’t have any contact with my brother, because they just don’t know…. I’m pregnant, I can’t take any chances.” The woman and her brother become estranged as a result.

Other titles that address this topic are Overcoming Irrational Fear of AIDS (1987) and Infection Control: An AIDS Update (1987). Overcoming presents a roomful of health care providers receiving training on how to manage the knowns and unknowns about AIDS and deal with their anxiety, guilt, burnout, and even anger. At the start of the video, one nurse raises her hand to say, “The doctors aren’t always honest about the patient having AIDS.” Infection Control begins with a voiceover and a series of news and magazine covers and headlines, some matter-of-fact, some lurid but typical for the time. “Because the vast majority of its victims were homosexual and bisexual men, and intravenous drug users, old prejudices resurfaced.” The video counters these prejudices with facts, noting that…”with common- sense precautions, AIDS is very hard to contract.” Again, this material is largely aimed at health care providers struggling to serve their patients and protect themselves, too.

NLM Digital Collections

It will take time, but soon most of these digitized U-Matics, along with HIV/AIDS material originating on VHS tapes and scheduled for preservation work in 2021, will be captioned and added to NLM Digital Collections. This moving image material will join thousands of posters and photographs already available as well as manuscript and other textual material about people working to respond to and live with this virus.

World AIDS Day is observed on December 1. Launched in 1988, it was the first-ever global health day, and 2020 marks the 33rd commemoration. World AIDS Day messages and toolkits are available online with the Centers for Disease Control.  Read the NIH Statement on World AIDS Day 2020.

An informal portrait of a white woman in a library.Sarah Eilers is the Manager of Historical Audiovisuals in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.


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