You Don’t Get Christmas Letters Like This (William Gordon Murray Papers)

But if you did, you might look forward to them all year. From the William Gordon Murray Papers, 1929-1991 (RS 13/9/15), addressed to Bill (not that Bill Murray) from Bill (Wagner), these hand-lettered, sketch-studded epistles are the kind of letters you’re not getting. Find them in the ‘Living History Farms’ series (General Correspondence; Living History Farms; William Wagner letters, 1970-1981).

World AIDS day

This World AIDS Day, we are forty years into a global epidemic, the death toll from which can never be known with certainty. After the shocks and tragedies of the first decade of AIDS, and driven by the activism and research of people with AIDS themselves, treatments and preventatives have taken AIDS from a terminal to a chronic condition: protease inhibitor drugs halt the virus in its tracks, pre-and post-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP and PEP) can prevent infection altogether, and contain the virus following exposure. There are drugs which can suppress the viral load of an infected person so that they never develop symptoms and cannot transmit the virus to others (so long as they have continued access to the medication). The degree to which AIDS remains a deadly illness is the degree to which people are aware of and can access these preventative methods and medications.

The problem of AIDS has in some ways changed dramatically. In other ways, however, it remains the same. The fight against AIDS has always been two-fold: to get drugs into bodies, and to get reliable, accurate, actionable information to people so that they could protect themselves and each other against the disease. Despite the huge clinical advances in the past forty years, AIDS stigma is still significant and misinformation remains prevalent.

Going into the fifth decade of the struggle against AIDS, it’s important to celebrate where we are and how far we’ve come, and a great way to do that is to see where we’ve been.

In 1990, the second decade of the AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) epidemic was starting. Reliable tests had been developed for HIV (Human Immune Deficiency Virus), and treatments with the power to change the course of the disease were emerging. Although the prevention of transmission was well-understood in clinical contexts and among the most at-risk people (gay men, bisexual men, sex workers, and intravenous drug users– by no means separate categories), the disease was widely regarded as a judgement, a boogeyman, and a punchline. Myths, misunderstanding, misinformation, and outright lies about AIDS were mainstream. Homophobic violence, never absent in the postwar era, had become alarmingly prevalent with the new justification of AIDS scaremongering. Gay people were still seen largely as a phenomenon of big cities, an alien element created by urban density, far from small-town or “heartland” life, and AIDS was openly regarded as evidence that homosexuality was immoral and dangerous, and that queer people were themselves inherently dangerous: to themselves, to others, to the fabric of society itself.

So, given those factors– the geographical distance, the burden of difference, the fog of discrimination– what did students in Iowa think about AIDS in 1990? There is no one answer, but a piece of that puzzle can be found in RS 10/6, the Department of Industrial Education and Technology Records. In this seemingly unlikely place, in subgroup RS 10/6/5, titled “Creative Components and Field Reports,” you’ll find “The Iowa Student Survey of AIDS/HIV related Attitudes, Knowledge, and Behaviors Report,” filed by June M. Harris in 1990.

What’s in it? Well, that would be telling, but here’s a clue from the results section:

For more on the state of HIV/AIDS care, including important information about sexual and personal health, risk management, prevention, personal safety, and living with HIV/AIDS for people of all genders and orientations, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis remains a vital resource. More information about accessing pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis in Iowa, see PrEPIowa. Resources about HIV/AIDS prevention, care, and support in Iowa are available through governmental and community organizations. HIV/AIDS is a virus, a health condition, and a fact of life: it is neither a punishment nor a death sentence, and it need not be a catastrophe.

What makes the work work: a note about trying things and writing them down.

This post is about two important elements of archival practice: trying things and writing them down

Writing things down is, unsurprisingly, an important part of archival work. The one thing all archives have in common is that no two are alike: archives collect unique materials, and every archive has its own set of collecting, preservation, and access concerns and priorities, which they address from within a broadly uniform theoretical framework. What that means is that, while we use certain tools (both intellectual and technological) and follow certain professional standards and practices, how we enact and apply them varies from place to place. And what that means is that trying things and writing them down is a crucial part of working in an archive, and that’s true whether it’s a community archive preserving the history of a local theater, a university or government archive collecting public records, or a corporate archive maintaining design and manufacturing specifications.

One example of trying things and writing them down as archival practice here at SCUA is how we catalog artifacts. To keep track of these three-dimensional objects (we have a lot of buttons), we use a software called Past Perfect, which was developed for use in museums. It lets us create records for artifacts, attach pictures, track where they are in our storage (or on display in an exhibit, out for preservation, etc), and export inventories– like the searchable PDF catalog on our website. There’s a manual for the software which details how to input information, how to save records, etc– basic software functions– but what it doesn’t, and can’t, tell us is how we want to use the software. Since Past Perfect was designed to support a broad range of institutions, it has a lot more options and features than we even need, and the interface can be pretty overwhelming, which was only part of the problem. The issue we found was that not enough of the artifacts in our collection had records, and the records were inconsistent, mostly because the existing instructions for cataloging artifacts weren’t very thorough and there wasn’t a clear workflow to follow.

How do we decide which fields are important for our artifacts, what kind of language to use in the descriptions, and what the standard cataloging procedure should be? That’s where trying things comes in. In order to develop a SCUA-specific manual for creating artifact records with Past Perfect, we had to take a look at what kind of records had been made before, what kind of artifacts we had, and what we thought was important to capture: most of all, though, we had to try cataloging artifacts. Every time we made a decision– enter the date of creation like this, use this term first to describe this kind of object– we wrote it down. Every time we took an action, we wrote it down. Eventually, we had a list of steps and directions for using Past Perfect to create the kind of records we want to have for the kind of objects SCUA holds. And then the testing began… There’s a manual now, with screenshots, that lays out the process so that anyone can do it and get the expected result.

This came up as a part of a larger project reviewing how we handle artifacts. Examining the artifact catalog, it became obvious that the existing procedures hadn’t been working and we needed a new approach. This is fairly common in an archive: a task becomes a bottleneck, or a procedure hasn’t been kept up to date, and creates a problem that needs to be solved inside the archive’s existing systems. Changing our approach is often a lot easier than acquiring (and training on, and migrating information to) a new tool for doing it. In this case, we already had Past Perfect, and Past Perfect was designed for the job, it just wasn’t being used consistently and to its potential. Fully documenting the workflow, the expected outcome, and our decision-making process in a manual solved the problem (not enough artifacts had records, and the records weren’t consistent) and also created a means to update that manual as needed.

We tried some things, and once we had tried enough things, we wrote them down, and now there’s a resource that anyone in the department, from a student worker to the next University Archivist, can pick up and use– or change, if it needs to be changed.

All this contributes to the life of the archive, both in shaping how materials are handled and made available, and becoming a record of how the people who work here do their work, what they’re passionate about, what they’ve changed and why. It’s the sort of work that supports all the rest of the work we do, not just now but for years to come. Which, given that our job is to preserve, make available, and store materials in the holdings for future generations, is sort of important.

Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women in Politics

March is Women’s History Month, and this year marks the hundredth anniversary of the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment, which enfranchised (some) women in the United States. Special Collections and University Archives houses many collections focused on women’s history, work, and lives both at Iowa State and around the world: women’s history is Iowa State history, and vice versa.

The administrative records and photographs of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women in Politics (RS 13/21/06) document the establishment and operations of the Center, from its inception in the department of Political Science in 1992 through former director Dianne Bystrom’s resignation in 2018.

In some ways, the history of the Center itself reflects the ways in which the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was an incomplete victory for women’s liberation: the renovation of the former Botany Hall and its re-dedication as Catt Hall, envisioned as a home for the Center and a celebration of women’s political power, sparked action by students who, already living in the incomplete victory of white woman suffrage and the white feminist movements of the 20th century, raised serious questions about naming the building for Carrie Chapman Catt, given her mixed legacy on race in America. The Catt Center’s website addresses some of those questions more fully; evidence of the student protests and the administrative response to them appear in these records largely as newspaper clippings*.

Materials related to the Center’s programs start the early 1990s, keeping pace with changes in the political and material realities of women’s lives in the United States as they moves forward into the current century. The photographs in this collection document the variety of speakers and visitors the Center has hosted, recipients of the Strong Minded Women Award, Mary Louise Smith Chair honorees, and many others (spot Anita Hill, Elizabeth Dole, and Amy Klobuchar); they also offer more candid looks at the workshops, student trips, and daily work of the Center’s staff.

Recently processed, these records will be open to researchers just as soon as SCUA is.

*Those protests (the September 29th movement), are documented in the University Archives in RS 22/03/03, the September 29th Movement records and RS 22/01/08, the records of the Catt Hall Review Committee. For more about Catt herself, check out this previous post.

Introducing A.L. Carson, processing archivist

Carson, in their natural habitat (surrounded by boxes).

A.L. Carson goes by “Carson” and has since approximately the age of 12. Carson earned their Masters of Science in Information Studies, focusing on archives and digital materials, from the University of Texas at Austin in 2016, and spent two years as a Library Fellow at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In February of 2019, Carson left UNLV to come to ISU; joining SCUA as a processing archivist, Carson enjoys both the complex intellectual work of unraveling collections and the more mundane physical tasks of taking records from storage to access. They have a dog, love bicycles and baseball, and listen to a lot of music.


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