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Remembering the impact of AIDS on the library community

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This is a guest post by American Folklife Center archivist Charles Hosale.

Two blocks of the AIDS Memorial Quilt
Block 2388 of the AIDS Memorial Quilt (left) includes a panel honoring Library of Congress employees, while panel 2793 (right) includes a commemoration of New York Public Library employees.

A little more than one year ago, the American Folklife Center announced the acquisition of the AIDS Memorial Quilt records . My colleagues and I continue work to preserve the records and make them accessible. This year, living under the weight of another pandemic, we’re pausing to celebrate World AIDS Day by participating in the first virtual exhibit of AIDS Quilt panels. The National AIDS Memorial, as part of their World AIDS Day events, has worked with organizations from all 50 states and territories to curate the large virtual exhibit. The AIDS Quilt is composed of individual panels commemorating one or more people, which are further organized into larger blocks. The American Folklife Center has selected eight of these blocks for inclusion. The blocks were chosen for their significance to the Library of Congress, the American Folklife Center, and the broader GLAM (gallery, library, archive, and museum) industry. The exhibit can be found at this link, but I’ll elaborate a bit more on the selections here.

Two blocks of panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
Quilt Block 3227 (left) includes a panel commemorating employees of the Pasadena Public Library, while Quilt Block 5431 (right) honors employees of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Six blocks were chosen because they communicate the direct impact the AIDS crisis had on the Library of Congress and the GLAM industry. Quilt block 2388 includes a large panel made by the Library of Congress Professional Association in memory of our colleagues lost to AIDS. The panel was originally part of a memorial service for Library staff on April 28 and 29, 1992. The panel was on display at the Library that May and sent for inclusion in the Quilt ahead of the national Quilt display in October 1992. Blocks 2793 (New York Public Library Guild), 3227 (Pasadena Public Library), 5431 (Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago), and 5796 (Indianapolis Museum of Art) all also contain panels made by GLAM organizations in memory of their colleagues. Block 0625 has a panel memorializing Rick Haas, Records Management Officer in the Harvard University Archives. Haas was active in national and northeastern GLAM professional organizations, including the New England Archivists, the Society of American Archivists, and the Association of Records Managers and Administrators (ARMA). His panel features the ARMA logo. These panels, along with many others, show the tragic toll that AIDS took on our profession.

Two blocks of panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt
Quilt Block 5796 (left) contains the panel for employees of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, while Quilt Block 0625 (right) has a panel memorializing Rick Haas, Records Management Officer in the Harvard University Archives, which features the logo of the Association of Records Managers and Administrators (ARMA). 

Because the American Folklife Center is America’s home for our stories and traditions, the stories told by the Quilt naturally have connections to other collections in our care. Block 0919 was chosen as an example of these kinds of connections. It contains a panel memorializing Joseph F. Lomax. Joseph was the grandson of John A. Lomax and the nephew of Alan Lomax, both of whom are integral figures in the history of American folk studies and ethnomusicology. As you might know, the Lomax family collections are foundational to the Center’s history–John A. Lomax was the second honorary curator of the Library’s Archive of Folk Song, and Alan Lomax was its first employee. The archive would later become part of the American Folklife Center, so both are considered former heads of what is now the AFC archive. This panel highlights the ways that, like the Quilt, the Center is a home for the many threads and connections that together form the United States.

Two blocks of panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt
Quilt Block 0919 (left) contains a panel memorializing Joseph F. Lomax, the grandson of John A. Lomax and the nephew of Alan Lomax, two former heads of our archive. Quilt Block 0040 (right) contains a panel memorializing James Byron Smith, which features a book motif. 

The final block selected is 0040, which contains a panel memorializing James Byron Smith. This early panel was made by an employee of the Golden Gate University Bookstore in San Francisco. We’ve selected it because it features a book motif. Books, literature, and language are common themes in Quilt panels. Favorite quotes are often shared, and whole books are even sewn into the fabric! This is understandable, because language and books form the basis of our shared culture. They’re literally how we communicate. Love for language and books is also deeply personal – the words we love become part of our identity. These aspects of language and books make words a particularly powerful tool for panel makers. They use words and books to communicate meaning and inspire empathy through their quilt art. Even just the simple image of a book in motion – is it opening or closing? – on James Byron Smith’s panel communicates a lot about what he loved, those who loved him, and those who never got the chance to know him. Smith’s panel highlights the ways thousands of panel makers have communicated AIDS victims’ love for literature and their most cherished words.

Please enjoy the opportunity to visit the virtual exhibit, which is online until March 31, 2021. On this World AIDS Day, through the exhibit and our thoughts, the American Folklife Center and the Library of Congress celebrate the memory of our colleagues and peers, and of every reader lost to AIDS.



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