“It would be difficult,” the former officer George Gleig wrote in 1825, “to convey to the mind of an ordinary reader anything like a correct notion of the state of feeling which takes possession of a man waiting for the commencement of a battle.” Nonetheless, he tried to do just that. Time, Gleig asserted, “appears to move upon leaden wings”; one experienced a “strange commingling of levity and seriousness within him—a levity which prompts him to laugh, he scarce knows why . . .”1 Departing for service was both “striking” and “harrowing”; peace was “dull” and resulted in “jealousy”; a siege was “galling” and “disagreeable,” producing “absolute hatred” between the besieging and the besieged.2
Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) was a young student at the University of Munich when Johann von Spix and Carl Friedrich von Martius returned from their expedition to Brazil. Among the many items and specimens the German naturalists brought back were fish. The methodology they had followed on their journey through what was then part of the Portuguese Empire was typical of naturalists in the field: They observed, collected, and in some cases classified. Then, back in Europe, they studied the amassed material. Their journey through the exuberant and unfamiliar natural environment had lasted three years (1817–1820). In this geographical and temporal context, the fish and marine species were rarities that few scientists could address with authority within the framework of European natural history. The observant naturalists were nonetheless able to classify species unknown in Europe while also learning about these species’ natural environments.
German migration in subtropical South America began in the early nineteenth century. It lasted for almost 150 years and shaped one of the most extensive projects of transnational forest colonization and global agricultural exchange in history. This experience catalyzed the formation of different bodies of knowledge, many of them currently either lost or “fugitive,” as Glenn Penny characterizes German migrant knowledge in Central America.
On May 18th, I hosted a seminar about information history, a topic that seems to have gained momentum in recent years. My interest in information as a historical phenomenon began as an attempt to inquire into the prehistory of the Danish public libraries.1 For some years, I have also had a strong interest in the history of knowledge. Framing things this way might cause readers to think that I assume clear and evident differences between the two. I am, however, much more interested in how they supplement each other than in how I can characterize each as a unique field. It is no secret that the history of knowledge has gained quite a different resonance within history than information history has experienced.
On March 2, 2021, the 117th birthday of Theodor Geisel, the children’s book author and illustrator behind the Dr. Seuss pseudonym, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that it would “cease publication and licensing” of six titles in its collection because the listed books “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”1 A new battle in the political culture wars ensued, with cries of “cancel culture” exploding in the conservative media.2
But who is Dr. Seuss? And why did this action provoke such controversy?
There is a curious subgenre of printed calendars in early modern Europe called Bauernkalender. Bauer in German refers to a farmer or peasant, so we might literally translate the name of this genre as “farmers’ calendars” or “peasant calendars.” That is not to say they are in any way simple. You know one when you see it because they are all highly iconographic, largely replacing text with image. In fact, the submission of text to image is so severe as to render an individual edition nearly incomprehensible to any reader without a specific kind of tacit cultural knowledge. Therefore, Bauernkalender demonstrate the potentially unsteady relationship between a material text and its ostensibly intended audience. Bauernkalender are not unique in this manner—among almanac calendars, or among any printed editions for that matter—but they are unusual.
Nearly two years ago, Shadi Bartsch tweeted five tenets for understanding knowledge that now appear the on website of the center she directs at the University of Chicago, namely the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. These tenets deserve further elucidation and discussion, a process I'd like to begin on this blog, starting at the end:
- Knowledge at any given time is exactly equal to what people think is true. As such, sub-knowledges, unauthoritative knowledges, and disputed knowledges can all exist simultaneously inasmuch as “people” is a plural concept.
“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?