“Freedom through knowledge” was one of the slogans of Planned Parenthood’s first national campaign in 1942.1 Publishing pamphlets, posters, and testimonials under the headline “Planned Parenthood in Wartime,” the organization related contraception to the need for women workers in the war industries, the urgency of high maternal death rates, and the superiority of American democracy over totalitarianism. This was the organization’s first campaign since changing its name from the Birth Control Federation of America to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The campaign and the new name marked a shift in focus from promoting birth control, that is the use of contraceptives once there were too many children in a family, to advocating child spacing, the idea that couples should consciously plan the arrival of their children from the beginning of their marriage.
How do practitioners—of any form of specialized knowledge—learn technical skills, and how do they find knowledge deemed solid and secure? Clearly, much training occurs within formal situations such as schools and laboratories. Classrooms and their textbooks have attracted due attention from historians, with a focus in the last decade or so on how teachers convey working knowledge bodily and not only abstractly to their students or apprentices. But learning does not stop with formal education, and often enough it starts elsewhere. Manuals and handbooks have long enabled informal, often self-directed education and training. They also provide a new vantage point for bringing together history of science with history of books and media, from antiquity to the present. These instructional texts and compendia codify the knowledge of a working community with an eye to communicating what a new practitioner needs to know. Such texts have also played a key role in bringing local knowledge and know-how to far-flung readers and practitioners around the globe. By following these apparently mundane texts and their uses, rather than focusing only on elite practitioners, we bring into view an exciting new set of historical connections and participants.
Soon after the global SARS outbreaks in 2003, and many years before the current novel coronavirus pandemic led to a historically unique shutdown of global air traffic, health experts anticipated the vital role air connections would play in the likely event of a worldwide zoonotic pandemic. In 2006, for example, the chief doctor at Frankfurt Airport observed, “In the context of globalization, we in Europe must assume that infection outbreaks on other continents will within 14–24 hours pose a considerable threat to our German population.”1 For medical and global historians, past relations between air traffic, plagues, and health policies present a promising, still largely unexplored research topic.2 Stranded last spring due to a COVID-19 flight ban myself, I started wondering how experts in epidemiology and sanitary control reacted to the rise of mass air travel. How did health experts cope with the breakthrough of the jet age in the 1960s and what were their strategies against the spread of contagious diseases by airplanes?
Crosspost from Migrant Knowledge
In January of 1929, the husband-and-wife sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd published what would become a landmark work of popular ethnography called Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture. The Lynds’ broadly accessible book presented an in-depth profile of the social and civic life in Muncie, Indiana, a “typical” American community which, not coincidentally, had a very large white, Protestant population and relatively small, marginalized communities of immigrants and African Americans. Despite the somewhat unrepresentative picture of American society portrayed in their study, the Lynds were motivated by the progressive social impulse that had been established in the work of the sociologist Thorstein Veblen. Their intention was to survey the injustices and inequalities of the modern “pecuniary” society, which made material wealth the ultimate value. Vigorously promoted by its publisher, the book was the first social-scientific study to become a best-seller, and it would become the go-to reference for mass marketers trying to figure out what motivated the average American consumer just before the economy collapsed into the Great Depression.1
Eighteenth-century Sweden was a scientific powerhouse. Its researchers gave their names to some of the most significant developments of the period, from the Linnaean system of binomial classification to the temperature metric established by Anders Celsius. But what if I told you that one secret to Sweden’s success was a German-speaking Protestant from Alsace?
When I started blogging in 2016, I had not been an active reader of blogs. I liked the idea of reaching out to a broader public by blogging about my research project on the eponymously titled Migration and Belonging, not least because it was publicly funded, but what exactly would it mean to blog as a historian? How often would I need to upload a post and on what? Would I be able to handle the technical requirements? What pictures could I use? And how about other social media? I have been blogging and tweeting for some four years now. In 2017, I also began using Instagram for scholarly communication. Here I reflect on my experiences with academic blogging and other social media as a distinct form of producing knowledge—some meta-blogging, if you will.
Mikhail Bulgakov’s first novel, The White Guard, weaves an affecting story about the power of human connection in times of crisis.1 First serialized in 1925, albeit not to completion, and informed by his own experiences, it employs psychological realism to capture life in Ukraine during the catastrophic Russian Civil War, which had ended only a few years earlier.2 That experience included the wildfire spread of “uncertain knowledge.” Not surprisingly, rumors—as well as talk of rumors—abound in The White Guard, providing a window into a world fraught with uncertainty.
As historian of science Lorraine Daston recently remarked, COVID-19 has thrown us back into a state of “ground-zero empiricism.” The manifold manifestations of COVID-19 and the many unknowns involved are provoking scientific speculation that is often based on nothing more than chance observations and personal anecdotes. The radical uncertainty of the current situation, writes Daston, has catapulted us back to the seventeenth century, with almost everything up for grabs, “just as it was for the members of the earliest scientific societies—and everyone else—circa 1660.”1
In August 2019, the city of Bielefeld, home to about 340,000 people in northwest Germany, launched a new marketing campaign based on an old internet joke. In 1994, Achim Held, a computer science student at the University of Kiel, had jokingly spread the rumor that Bielefeld did not actually exist.1 Twenty-five years later, the city’s marketing agency put a new spin on the so-called Bielefeld conspiracy by offering a reward of €1 million for proof that Bielefeld, indeed, did not exist. For once, German humor—quite surprisingly to some—attracted attention far beyond national borders: Entries arrived from participants as far away as China, India, and Australia. Their purported proofs used arguments from such diverse fields as history, physics, and mathematics. In order to make sense of the more complex contributions, the marketing agency’s jury even consulted researchers at Bielefeld’s university and archives. Somewhat less surprisingly, none of the competitors ended up taking home the prize money.2 Proof of nonexistence, apparently, can be quite a nut to crack.
We are all historians of the present. At least we should be. Many fellow historians of knowledge are currently using a wide variety of media to share their experience and research in an effort to put the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic into context. Twitter is one medium where this conversation is especially lively, as Eileen Sperry has noted on Nursing Clio, a wonderful group blog that is also active on Twitter. One can find these parts of Twitter by searching for the relevant hashtags, for example, #histmed (history of medicine) and the much more generic #twitterstorians (historians on twitter).