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Understanding the Pandemic: New Virtual Programs Announced

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“#3 Subway, Rockaway Ave., Brooklyn, March 17, 2020.” Photo by Camilo José Vergara. Prints and Photographs Division.

It’s been a century since the world faced a pandemic with the long-lasting, devastating effects of COVID-19, which has now spread throughout the globe so swiftly and insidiously. That century-old virus was the Great Influenza, or Spanish Flu, of 1918-20. But in between, we have seen HIV/AIDS (beginning in 1981), SARS (2002-04) and the H1/N1 flu (2009-10), to name a recent few. The list of known epidemics goes back as far as 1200 B.C.

Those older outbreaks have inspired writers to take a look at the history and make predictions about future pandemics. And historians and scientists have gone on to map the great pandemics, creating a visual landscape of dread.

The Library of Congress closed its buildings to the public on March 12, and the news release of that day said facilities would be closed until April 1 an optimistic prediction that so many public facilities and service providers emulated. Walk along any business corridor and you can still see the signs whose “expiration” date has passed, as the pandemic inexorably invaded every part of the country.

To inform and inspire, the Library has responded with a host of virtual programs for users of all ages, which can be accessed through its new Engage! Page.

As a result, the National Book Festival Presents series, whose inaugural program was held in the Library soon after the Aug. 31 National Book Festival, is becoming virtual. The Presents series was created to provide a book festival experience to lovers of the event on a year-round basis. Because these programs can no longer be held at the Library, we are offering a virtual multipart series, with authors who have written books about widespread diseases and the worldwide response to them. All programs will be available on the Library’s Facebook page and YouTube channel, and some will also appear on C-SPAN at later dates.

First in the series is author John M. Barry on “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.” This 2004 bestseller has become a bestseller once again. Barry talks with David Rubenstein, co-chair of the National Book Festival, on the 1918 influenza pandemic that ravaged the world even as World War I was being fought on the ground in Europe. The program is available now from the Library’s website.

Second in the series is “No One Was Immune: Mapping the Great Pandemics from Columbus to COVID-19.” The Library of Congress’s John Hessler, an expert in the Geography and Map Division, and Marie Arana, author and literary director of the Library, discuss the sweep of history from the 1500s small pox pandemic that decimated the indigenous population of the Americas to the meticulous work that is being done now to map COVID-19. The program is available now from the Library’s website.

Additional programs are:

  • Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic: Prize-winning science writer David Quammen discusses “Spillover,” in which he tracks the animal origins of human diseases through the centuries, with David Rubenstein.  (Available THURSDAY, APRIL 30, 7 P.M.)
  • How One 21st Century Pandemic, SARS, Predicted Another, COVID-19: Author and journalist Karl Taro Greenfeld discusses his prescient book on the SARS epidemic, which foreshadowed the more devastating COVID-19 pandemic, with the Library of Congress’s Roswell Encina, chief of communications. (Available THURSDAY, MAY 7, 7 P.M.)
  • Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration and Life on Earth: NASA astronaut and scientist Kate Greene lived in a simulated Martian environment located on the slopes of Mauna Loa in Hawai’i and spent several months in isolation, doing research. She has a lot to say about the stress, loneliness and other challenges of sequestration and all from a very novel and unique perspective. Interview by Marie Arana, Library of Congress literary director. (Book to be published July 14) (Available THURSDAY, MAY 14, 7 PM)
  • Why It’s Hard to Know Things, Lately. And How COVID-19 Will Go Down in History: Bestselling historian and Harvard professor Jill Lepore discusses how the current pandemic, its effects and our reaction to them say something very real about America in this moment and in the historical record that will emerge from it. Interview by John Haskell, director of the John M. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. (Available THURSDAY, MAY 21, 7 PM)

The 2020 Library of Congress National Book Festival, which is free for everyone, will be held on Saturday, Aug. 29. You can get up-to-the-minute news, schedule updates and other important festival information by subscribing to this blog. The festival is made possible by the generosity of sponsors. You too can support the festival by making a gift now.


  1. A great series on the pandemic! I’ve listened to the first three and have found them to be excellent. Thanks for pulling this series together.

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