Published: Oct. 20, 2020

Contact tracing—that is, the practice of talking with people who have been diagnosed with the Covid-19 and asking them to identify people who have been in their company—initially seemed very promising. If you could discover a chain of encounters, teams of workers could keep track of exposures and encourage those at risk to limit their interactions with others.

The weakness of this plan was predictable: when a stranger calls and asks questions about an individual’s recent social encounters, distrust gears up fast, and interviews can end before they begin.

So where could we find a profession trained to anticipate and deal with this distrust?

The answer is clear.

To persuade witnesses to history to talk openly about their memories, practitioners in the field of oral history have had to figure out how to use patience and persuasion to gain the trust of their sources. Just as important, oral historians have had to learn how to create and maintain well-organized records of their findings.

The United States has an abundance of young people who majored in history and who are frequently told that there is no demand for their skills. But these young people carry into the world the ability to take in and reflect carefully on perspectives and stories, even when—especially when—they are in terrain charged with emotional intensity. Equally important as a qualification, the cohort of under-employed young historians originate in every locale and region of the United States, represent many ethnic and racial groups, and are, literally, at home in every variety of urban, rural, and suburban communities. Rather than “strangers,” these are place-based young folks whose roots provide them with an advantage in local credibility.

If there were ever a “kill two birds with one stone” situation (with apologies, birds, for this callous figure of speech), this project—to give contact tracing a fresh start by a massive recruitment of young historians—fits the bill.

If you also noticed this, or have any other reflections you’d like to share, we would love to hear from you. Please email us at