A digital future

Cover of Rats, Lice and History

The coronavirus epidemic has challenged historical research. Archives and libraries are closed, seminars are by Zoom, books come by mail. Can history tell us anything about the future?

I’ve taken from my shelves a paperback 31st printing (in 1965) of the original 1935 best-seller Rats, Lice and History by Hans Zinsser. He had had a liberal education – the text has words in Greek letters and footnotes in German – but wanted to write for a popular audience. His work as a bacteriologist was elucidating typhus, a bacterial disease transmitted in lice bites which was overcome in the First World War by baths and laundry.

The book describes epidemics over the centuries, which start acutely but can fade into the background, or return to animal hosts, only to resurge as human immunity fades. Our equivalent of baths and laundry is social distancing and isolation – the transmission is not by lice but by coughing and touching.

Our archives and libraries may be able to create distanced settings – I’ve been working during the outbreak as a telephone contact-tracer in an open-plan office, which seems to work if people are careful. The difficulty is people who have the disease symptoms but don’t self-isolate.

We will be ‘back to normal’ in a year’s time, perhaps after a further winter outbreak. In Camden, the ‘normal’ is the local archives, with 200,000 stored items and a programme of talks and exhibitions.  Yet the catalogue is a card-index and the data-records are on fiches and micro-film – inaccessible during the epidemic and indeed to most people most of the time. I wish it were better.