SURVIVORS: Archiving the history of bulletin board systems and the AIDS crisis
The history of the Internet and the history of the HIV/AIDS crisis are fundamentally intertwined. Because of the precarious nature of primary early Internet materials, however, documentation that reflects this relationship is limited. Here, we present and analyse an important document that offers considerable insight in this area: a full printout of the bulletin board system (BBS) discussion group “SURVIVORS.” Run by David Charnow, SURVIVORS operated as an “electronic support group” for members living with HIV/AIDS from 1987 to 1990. These dates represent a period of overlap between both the AIDS crisis in America and the use of BBSs as a predecessor to contemporary Internet technologies. The contents of SURVIVORS were printed by Charnow before his death in 1990 and later donated to the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives. Through our discussion of these documents, we articulate the striking relationship between the SURVIVORS printout as a material document that preserves a digital past and the lives of those whose stories are contained within the printout. We argue that it is not only the content but indeed the precarious, shifting media format of the SURVIVORS printout, born digital and now preserved on paper, that gives it its meaning. Thirty years after his death, Charnow’s printout of SURVIVORS keeps a critical piece of the interrelated histories of HIV/AIDS and the Internet alive, while also raising valuable questions about the archiving of these histories.
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