Stiff Necks, Sore Eyes, and Hidden Treasures

New York Public Library

There are worse places to be on a hot summer day than the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. The space itself is nothing short of breathtaking, its interior a throwback to classic Beaux-Arts design with plenty of oak and marble flourishes to humble a first-time patron. Searching the assortment of boxes I’d requested from Special Collections, I was grateful for the climate-controlled environment, knowing that outside, the temperature and humidity were starting to rise. Still, as I was approaching the end of my scheduled time in the reading room, the usual distractions were beginning to set in: sore back, stiff neck, and tired eyes, the result of rapidly scanning each container for information that might add insight or color to my book.

The “Silent Scream”

Compared to the West Coast collections I’d previously scoured, the NYPL had relatively little archival information pertaining to Randy Shilts. Still, so far I’d come across some important finds – an exchange of letters, for example, between Randy and Dr. Lawrence Mass, who played a crucial role in sounding the alarm about AIDS among New York City’s gay men, beginning in mid-1981. The back-and-forth between the two, though cordial, revealed some hurt feelings over how Dr. Mass’s efforts were given lesser attention in And the Band Played On, a fact that Randy acknowledged while explaining that he’d never meant for Band to be an “honor roll” of all the early AIDS heroes, but to call attention to the ways that prejudice, political gamesmanship, and self-interest had allowed the disease to reach disaster levels.

Aside from that discovery, most of the papers I viewed that day were copies of what I’d already found in San Francisco, so I wasn’t feeling much urgency to stick around. Turning through page after page, the voice in my head that hates being uncomfortable was telling me, “Close it up. I have to use the bathroom. I’m hungry and thirsty. There’s nothing new here, so let’s go.” Soon, I was down to one last piece of paper to examine, which I was sorely tempted to skip. After all – what could I possibly find, that I hadn’t already seen?

Thankfully, the disciplined inner researcher in me overruled the whinier parts of my brain: I would be finishing up in a minute anyway, so just suck it up and take a look, I told myself. Quite literally, the very last item in the final folder of the final box I’d requested stared up at me with this mocking, oversized headline: “The Human Side of Hitler.” 

Huh??

It didn’t take long for me to figure out what I was reading: a manually-typed leaflet excoriating Randy for a freelance story he’d written in the late 1970s. Later, I learned it was the handiwork of an author an activist named Arthur Evans, who was known for papering San Francisco’s gay neighborhoods with these screeds under the pseudonym, “The Red Queen.” At the moment, it was all new to me – a juicy, gossipy morsel that would add phenomenal color to the facts I’d already gathered from that era. Fighting to control my natural impulses, I allowed myself a “silent scream,” scrunching my face and pumping my fists in a gleeful little moment of triumph. Then, I quickly gathered the information I needed and quietly finished my work. This was, after all, a library. 

Finding the Narrative, One Artifact at a Time

Compared to my other research trips, that morning in New York was fairly typical: bouncing around the city conducting interviews while spending blocks of time in library reading rooms, the pleasant hum of classical or indie music streaming through my earbuds as I carefully thumbed through box after box, folder after folder, document after document. Combing through collections like Randy’s is seldom a speedy process. To gather what I need, I’ve had to spend hours at a time, hunched over tables with my laptop and iPad beside me, making brief notes about any relevant materials I found and taking digital photos to help me later with the writing. In my experience, people who conduct archival research either love it or hate it. And for all the back pain, stiff necks, sore eyes, and angry bladders I’ve endured, I have to confess – I actually kind of love it.

Not surprisingly, the earliest visits left me feeling pretty overwhelmed. We’re not talking about a handful of boxes here: in the San Francisco Public Library’s James Hormel LGBTQIA Center, the Randy Shilts Papers are fairly comprehensive, beginning with his early life, poetry and diaries from college and young adulthood, correspondences, clippings from his early journalism, notepads, press coverage of his work, audio and video recordings, and research files from each of his three books. The total collection takes up 120 cubic feet and includes more containers than I can be bothered to count. And this isn’t the only collection, as more of his papers can be found a few blocks away at the GLBT Historical Society

With so much raw material to examine, I worried at first that I’d never find my narrative. Over time and across numerous trips, however, I’ve gotten pretty savvy at knowing which containers to request before making my visits. This is because on my earliest trips, I took as many pictures and wrote as many notes to myself as I could, seeding my later writing with reminders of where to look for certain reference items in the future. The note-taking has gotten more precise with time – “add this to Chapter 10,” or “consider mentioning this in the sections about the bathhouses” – because I’ve come to recognize where certain artifacts (i.e., letters, news articles, or handwritten notes) correspond with specific periods in Randy’s life. 

Moreover, the experience of interviewing almost 70 people so far has helped me place certain life events in the context of his writing. When one of my sources told me about an off-color joke Randy told while addressing the International Conference on HIV/AIDS, I knew exactly where to look – both for a paper copy of his prepared remarks, and a video tape of the occasion. It turned out that my source’s recollection was pretty spot on: I found the exact joke, almost word for word as he described it to me, plus a lot more in terms of off-the-cuff comments and audience reactions (plenty of cheers, along with some boos and heckling).

Celebrate in Silence. Then Thank a Librarian

I never forget a “silent scream” moment, because it signifies the uncovering of something buried away and seemingly forgotten, which I know will be significant to the story I’m trying to tell. I even remember my first silent scream! It was a couple years before I started this project, when I came across the first ad for STD testing in gay bars and bathhouses that was ever printed in The Advocate, circa 1976. For the research I was doing at the time, this was a big deal. Here was proof that even before AIDS was discovered, gay and lesbian public health workers and activists had been mobilizing to deal other health issues that were plaguing the community, which Randy had accurately characterized as “pandemic-level” during those times. And personally, having spent much of my first five years in social work doing outreach and HIV testing in bars, I felt a connection with those earlier workers, who’d set the precedent for how my colleagues and I would continue these important efforts nearly three decades later.

I’ve heard it said that librarians are the unsung saviors of civilization, and I can’t find a good argument to counter this. At every turn, archivist librarians have helped me with professionalism, courtesy, and near-encyclopedic knowledge of their materials. Given how easily I start to grumble and whine whenever I’m hunched over a table, thumbing through page after page, I can only imagine the dedication and patience it takes to convert these stockpiles of raw information into the carefully catalogued, painstakingly preserved collections that researchers like me depend on. Thinking back on the history of atrocity and repression that so many cultures have endured (including but by no means limited to LGBTQ), I shudder to think how much more would have been lost, if not for the efforts of so many to protect the documents which verified the depth, complexity, and meaning of their lived experiences.

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