When Dec. 1 was declared World AIDS Day in 1988, the way the world thought and talked about that disease was very different from the way things are now.
One way to see what things were like back then, when AIDS was considered a fearful plague with no treatment, is to revisit the public service announcements and activist campaigns used to spread awareness about a problem that was very much misunderstood. The University of Rochester’s Rare Books and Special Collections department houses a collection of more than 8,000 AIDS education posters, building on a collection donated by Dr. Edward C. Atwater starting in 2007. The collection now includes posters in more than 60 languages, hundreds of which have been translated by the university’s language students.
Atwater began collecting the posters in the 1990s, says Lori Birrell, Special Collections Librarian for Historical Manuscripts at the University of Rochester, but they date back to 1982. Though the collection includes posters that were created in the last few years, the early entrants are a unique artifact of AIDS history.
“One of the big changes [over time] has been the emphasis on treatment,” Birrell observes. “Some of the more recent posters talk a lot more about treatment options. The earlier posters – grim isn’t quite the right word, but there’s a definite warning to many of them.”
As seen in the ten posters shown here, that warning took many forms, from the righteous anger of a group like ACT UP to the sometimes blunt admonitions of public health departments. Those darker images are an important reminder that, even as the conversation about AIDS turns to treatment and prevention, AIDS is not ancient history.
“Undergraduates at the university tend to see AIDS as a thing of the past,” says Birrell. “When I talk to Dr. Atwater, he emphasizes that this is an epidemic we continue to grapple with.”