HIV/AIDS and Being a Scholar in the Digital Era


Image by AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP)

Guest Post by Jessie Daniels, Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center.

When a new and frightening epidemic known as ‘AIDS’ was devastating a generation in the 1980s, the response from elected officials and government agencies was appallingly slow or non-existent.

Polly Thistlethwaite, 2016

Polly Thistlethwaite, 2016

Also in short supply was information about potentially life-saving drugs and clinical trials. Research published about HIV/AIDS was not available to the general public, but locked behind paywalls in academic libraries and databases.

It was through the confluence of her training as a research librarian and her AIDS activism during the late 1980s and early 1990s that my co-author, GC Chief Librarian Polly Thistlethwaite, learned that access to information is a basic human right.

As a research librarian, she could invite guests without university affiliations into her workplace to allow them access to print journals, books, and research databases that were only available at that time, pre-Internet, inside library buildings.

Connived and Colluded

She was not alone in this work. There were doctors, nurses, lawyers, students, faculty and other librarians in the ACT UP ranks who leveraged their credentials to allow others to tunnel into the rich stores of information controlled by research institutions.


They connived and colluded for wider access to medical, legal, public health, social science, education, and humanities literature when so little of it was freely available to those who needed it most, including the people who were dying from HIV/AIDS. Their activism created the political frame for opening up medical information to the public, initiated by the launch of PubMed in 1997.

When Polly and I were writing Being a Scholar in the Digital Era, we wanted to find a way to make our work available to a wide audience. We wanted to do this for several reasons. First, making our writing available open access is consistent with the lessons that Polly took away from her AIDS activism and the values that we both share. Second, the focus of the book is about how the digital era is changing the way we do our work as scholars, and making it open is one of these key changes.

About the Author