“A Beautiful Way to Remember” – Digitising the LHSA’s HIV/AIDS Collections

At the beginning of this year, I started in my role as the Cultural Heritage Digitisation Service’s new Digitisation Assistant. As part of the team responsible for providing the main digitisation services for the university’s heritage collections, I have been getting familiar with some the unique and varied collections here at the University of Edinburgh, as well as learning the ins and outs of cultural heritage digitisation.

One of the projects that I have been working on recently has been digitising part of the Lothian Health Service Archive’s (LHSA) renowned HIV/AIDS collection. This collection acts as a detailed record of the local and medical responses to the rapid rise in HIV and AIDS in Edinburgh and Lothian during the 80’s and 90’s and was listed on the UNESCO UK Memory of the World registry in 2011 in recognition of its unique historic significance. As I am fairly new to digitisation, this project was not only a chance for me to get more familiar with this fascinating collection but was also a great opportunity to learn more about the digitisation process.

Getting to Grips with Digitisation

For this particular collection, because I was working on a mix of loose-leaf paper and bound volumes, I actually ended up using a Bookeye 4 overhead book scanner for all of my image capture. This allowed me to quickly take good quality colour images of the various materials that I could then turn into pdfs for easier digital access.

Although there are lots of different ways to go about digitising heritage collections, one of best parts of using the Bookeye 4 was its versatile set-up. Unlike a lot of scanners, the Bookeye 4’s cradle and glass plates can be quickly switched from flat to V-shaped (which is a lot better for things like supporting the spines of books!). This is really handy when, like I was, you are scanning a variety of different document types, as it meant that I could easily adjust the equipment set-up to better support both flat and bound documents to avoid putting any excess strain or pressure on the originals during imaging.

Bookeye 4 Scanner set up in Flat and V-Shaped mode

Even though this was a relatively modern collection where everything was in pretty good condition, when digitising any heritage materials we still want to avoid potentially damaging them wherever possible! Ensuring that we don’t stress original documents unnecessarily while they’re being imaged means that we can reduce the risks of causing physical damage, helping us to make sure that they will still be available for people to look at alongside the digital copy in the future.


Exploring the Collection – NAMES Project (UK) and the AIDS Memorial Quilt

The LHSA’s collection covers a really broad range of topics relating to the response to the HIV/AIDS crisis across Edinburgh and Lothian. Some of the most memorable documents I came across though were a range personal correspondence, reports and leaflets from the NAMES Project (UK) about the creation and exhibition of the UK’s AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Based in Edinburgh – which during the 80’s and 90’s became known as the “AIDS Capital of Europe” due to its infection rate being nearly seven times the national average – the NAMES Project (UK) was one of many HIV/AIDS charities in the UK addressing the impact of the AIDS epidemic through various projects, including the UK AIDS Memorial Quilt. While I was aware of the quilt prior to this project, I have to admit that I didn’t know that much about it. Working with the LHSA HIV/AIDS collection however has given me a much greater understanding of how the AIDS Memorial Quilt came to be made and just how significant it was in bringing greater awareness to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the UK.

Inspired by the original US quilt project started in response to huge AIDS death toll in San Francisco, the UK AIDS Memorial quilt is considered to be a unique historical document from this period. People were encouraged to create individual quilt panels to commemorate loved ones who had died from AIDS, often attaching photographs, letters or belongings to the panels as tributes.

Display of the US AIDS Memorial Quilt outside of the White House in Washington D.C, October 1987

At the early stages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic it was unknown how exactly the disease was spreading. As it was initially perceived as mostly affecting the LGBTQ+ community, this led to a lot of stigma surrounding people who were suffering with or had died from AIDS. However compared to the rest of the UK, in Edinburgh – which had some of the highest case rates in Europe – very few cases of HIV were being transmitted amongst members of the LGBTQ+ community. In fact Lothian Health Board determined that almost half of HIV cases in the region were actually among intravenous drug users and that it was being spread rapidly regardless of sexual orientation.

In order to combat misinformation about how HIV spread and who could spread it, both Lothian Health Board and various HIV/AIDS charities set up a number of campaigns to bring greater awareness to the AIDS epidemic and help tackle the de-humanising climate of shame and fear that existed around people with HIV and AIDS.

Projects like the AIDS Memorial Quilt played an important role in helping to achieve this. About 384 people are represented on the UK AIDS Memorial Quilt and many of the panels were sent to the NAMES Project (UK) headquarters in Edinburgh from across the UK to be stitched together into large blocks known as “12 by 12’s”.

Diagram showing how to create the iconic “12 by 12” AIDS Memorial Quilt panels

The quilt was both a way for people to publicly memorialise the names of people who had lost their lives to AIDS, as well as a humanising but undeniable physical reminder of the devastation caused by the AIDS epidemic during a time where there was still a lot of shame and fear associated with HIV and AIDS in the UK. Digitising these documents, I really got a sense of the reach this project had and just how emotionally impactful exhibitions of these quilts were. As one member of the public reportedly described it in the visitors’ book from an exhibition of the quilt at the Solas Centre in Abbeymount, Edinburgh, the quilt is all at once “Sad, humorous, dignified, angry and gentle- a beautiful way to remember“.

My time working with this collection has given me a lot of valuable hands-on experience with the kind of work we do here at the Cultural Heritage Digitisation Service. This particular project has also been incredibly eye-opening to me about the scale of the HIV/AIDS epidemic here in Edinburgh during the 80’s and 90’s and the vital work that was being done to bring awareness to this crisis. As I settle further into my new role, I am really looking forward to seeing what other interesting collections I will get to work on in the future!


Gaby Cortés, Project Digitisation Assistant




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