FIGHT AIDS Library Celebrates 25 Years of Educating the Community
HIV might as well have been an evil spirit when it first hit the U.S. in the early '80s. People were afraid. They disparaged the infected, yet knew nothing about the virus. The pervasive lack of information perpetuated stigma, and even those who sought the truth couldn't access the information they needed. But in 1987, Heshie Zinman and John Cunningham came together as co-founders of Philadelphia's FIGHT AIDS library, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary of providing accurate HIV information and education to the public.
"The first time I heard the word 'GRID' (Gay Related Infectious Diseases), I had to find out what they were talking about," said Zinman. "It was a scary time during the early days of the Gay Cancer, as people called it; and even though I wanted to find out more, I had an extremely difficult time."
Around the time Zinman began scouring for information about HIV/AIDS, he worked at the most popular gay bar in Center City Philadelphia called Queer Bar, which has been closed for decades. A sign from Queer Bar still resides in the ballroom of Philadelphia's LGBT William Way Community Center.
"I got to see a bar of beautiful men quickly disappear. They all were dying. It was a social phenomenon. The community was petrified. People were gripped with fear," said Zinman.
Using skills from his background in history and anthropology, Zinman began tearing articles out of newspapers and magazines trying to gather as much information as he could. Eventually, his search led him to the Philadelphia Free Library, located at 1901 Vine St.
"This was 1986. When I walked into the free library, and told the front desk librarian that I wanted to find information about AIDS, she slowly scooted her chair away from me in fear," said Zinman.
From there, the librarian brusquely gave Zinman vague directions to different corners of the library, she herself unable to fathom why anyone would even want to research a virus that often killed people in under 18 months.
Zinman remembers how he felt schlepping around the library; tired, scared and lonely, he thought about how much worse he would feel if he were actually sick, and having to walk in circles and comb through tomes that might or might not contain the answers for which he was looking.
Discourage yet undaunted, Zinman later consulted one of his bartender friends at Cocktail Hour, another center city gay bar long gone. His friend recommended him to some librarians he knew, one of whom was John Cunningham.
From there, the AIDS library became a reality, however nascent. As more information about the virus became available to the public, Philadelphians could count on getting the latest, most accurate information from the library.
By 1987, Zinman, Cunningham and their associates of librarians and people living with HIV had joined together to create an AIDS Library, a safe, non-judgmental space for people to get the most up-to-date information about HIV. With over 2,000 unique visitors in the past year, the Library is a busy place for those who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, and it continues to be a symbol of the value free information provides for the public.
Funding for the AIDS Library, located on the 2nd floor of 1233 Locust Street, comes from the National Library of Medicine, the City of Philadelphia’s AIDS Activities Coordinating Office and private donors.
Today, the library provides HIV/AIDS information through a variety of media, including books, periodicals, medical journals, videos and the Internet. The AIDS Library also provides free computer access as well as one-to-one computer tutorials.
"If you look at the demographics of people living with HIV/AIDS, many of them cannot access information through the Internet. That’s what makes the computer classes so important," said Zinman.
The City of Philadelphia also just received a multi-million dollar grant to provide broadband access to the Internet for lower income people, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access life-saving information about their health.
In the future, Zinman would love to see the scope of the library expand to become an LGBT Wellness and Health Library, and change its name to reflect the library’s inclusion of information on other health afflictions that affect the gay community.
Zinman believes that, as the needs of the community change, so should the function of the library.
"At the end of the day, the point of the AIDS Library is to leave the same door open for everyone that me and my compatriots opened 25 years ago: to empower people through easy-to-access information in a safe space, so that they can make the most informed decisions about their health," said Zinman.
For more info, visit fight.org/fight-programs/the-aids-library/