By Hannah Johnston, Library volunteer
From July 2019 until March 2020, with few exceptions, I spent one day out of every week in the Drs. Barry and Bobbi Coller Rare Book Reading Room of the NYAM Library. As a volunteer, I wrote for this blog, Books, Health, and History, on various topics that utilized sources from the Library’s collections; I wrote about monsters, famous female physicians, and even libraries themselves. In March, as the threat of COVID-19 became clearer, the reading room closed, and I (among many others) could no longer consult the physical collections at the NYAM Library. After discussing with Library staff, I decided that my next project would use the digital resources and collections I am lucky to have access to as a student. I compiled a bibliography of historical literature on the topic du jour—pandemics.
Awareness that one is living through a historical moment is relatively rare; this awareness has led many to look to the past for hints as to how the current COVID-19 pandemic might impact the world going forward. In compiling this bibliography, I hoped to curate a resource that historians and history enthusiasts alike could use for research on epidemic history, personal interest, or simply to try to place our present moment in a larger historical context. I searched through several databases, including JSTOR, Project MUSE, and the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine database, looking specifically for journal articles from the last two decades which used a historical perspective to discuss pandemic or epidemic diseases.
I limited my search to only those articles which are available in full digitally. This choice was made in part out of necessity—during a pandemic, a person may not be able to visit a library to find and read the journal they are looking for. Since I was “volunteering from home,” I could only read through and write descriptions for articles to which I had full digital access. Of course, this is not a perfect solution. Many articles were omitted from this bibliography because they are not available online, and they would surely have been useful. The digital articles are still for the most part only available to readers with either individual or institutional subscriptions to the relevant databases or journals.
My own experience compiling this bibliography taught me quite a bit about the long and ever-changing relationship between humanity and disease throughout history. Some diseases and disease events, such as the influenza pandemic of 1918, can provide an example (or a warning) of how different public health responses can affect long-term outcomes. Others, such as the Black Death, HIV/AIDS, and countless others, show us how disease has changed art, politics, the environment, and even the minutiae of human behavior. We have already seen many of the ways COVID-19 has changed our daily lives. While it is important not to underplay the devastation wrought by epidemic disease, reading about the impacts of other, similar disease outbreaks makes it clear that this pandemic will bring with it (and perhaps already has) significant cultural, social, and economic change, and perhaps offers us some guidance in navigating the “new normal.”
Compiling the bibliography was certainly a survey for me in the history of disease, but also highlighted several obstacles brought on or exacerbated by the modern-day pandemic. The biggest of these, at least in relation to this bibliography, is access—for all the work I did to collect and curate these digital articles, and despite the fact that many databases, journals, and other resources have made some or all of their articles free to read, many of them are still accessible only to a select few. The debate over who has or should have access to academic works is one that predates the pandemic, and is perhaps beyond the scope of a blog post. The COVID-19 crisis, however, impacts everyone, and the articles in this bibliography would almost certainly be of value to any reader. When the day finally comes that the coronavirus is no longer the threat it is today, it will still be important to read and write about it—work which everyone should have the resources to do.
I hope this bibliography can be a useful and informative resource for anyone who wishes to better understand how the coronavirus pandemic fits into a much larger historical context. The history of epidemic disease can inform how we interpret our experiences and plan our next steps in the current crisis. No less important, we can consider how our modern-day experience with a pandemic informs the ways we interpret the past.