A Casualty Of The Archives: Put Me On Research Injured Reserve, Please

March 14, 2011, 3:27 pm

You did it again, Charlie Brown.

Two days ago I woke up with a slightly sore back.  I did what I normally do with back pain (other than worry that my advancing age is causing my arthritis flareups to accelerate):  pop two Advil and flex in the shower while hot water pounds on my lower spine.

It got worse.

Four hours later, I got up from my computer and was seized with paralyzing pain extending in a band around my spine.  Such pain, at that central location of the body, causes involuntary gasps that sound like this: “$hi-hi-hi-hi-hitte!”

I couldn’t think what I had done to cause this problem.  I haven’t been rowing (the recent flooding blew away our club dock, and you can’t erg on the road.) The only exercise I have had during and after my travels has been my normal regime of weight lifting and a daily, sedate turn on the Exercycle.

I took two more Advil. And a Valium. No dice.

I’ll spare you the rest of my treatment program (oh, hell — why should I?  I use the Valley of the Dolls method: codeine, vodka, more Valium to stop the spasms and ice packs.)  However, as I lay in bed catching up on my grading, I had plenty of time to think.  As the pain receded and localized to a small spot on the right side of my spine, I realized that the problem was my old friend:  Archives Back.

Yes, Archives Back.  I first developed this problem three years ago after a long research trip and realized that the only way I could have hurt myself was through the twisting motion that is required to get a very heavy archive box off the cart when in a seated position and bending from the waist.  Your standard archives cart has three shelves, and torquing the spine repeatedly from a position in which arm strength is all but irrelevant puts enormous strain on said spine.  I suspect that on that original trip I damaged a disc that is easily re-injured when I do the same stupid thing all over again.

So in the spirit of sharing, here are three common health problems arising from archival research.

Back and Neck Pain.  I’ve already discussed how you get it and treat it (I also once pulled a bicep picking up a box from an awkward position.)  But how to prevent it?  My guess is that each full archives box (I’m talking the acid-free gray ones that meet NARA specifications, now, not the banker’s boxes which are much larger) weighs about 20-25 pounds.  My suggestion?  Treat every box as if it is much larger, particularly if you are moving fast through a lot of boxes, as I was:  get up, bend your knees, and lift straight up with your knees.  A few stretches several times a day might not be such a terrible idea either; and I just get up and walk around the room every hour or so. 

Paper cuts.  I pulled a file that had a smear of blood on it, and the color indicated that there had been a casualty in the not-so-very-distant past.  As everyone knows, paper cuts are the most unexpected of injuries:  they happen in a perfectly unlucky moment of contact between finger and paper, bleed like a pig, and — like a splinter — are disproportionately painful.  One of my co-researchers who joined me for lunch one day had sliced a finger open, which had turned so sore she felt it every time she turned over a document.   My advice?  Bring band-aids.  But the only way to prevent paper cuts is be wearing those little white cotton Mickey Mouse gloves, which some facilities require.  They are hard to get used to, but better for the documents and for you.  (Evening addendum:  check out some of the comments.  Apparently gloves are no longer state of the art.)

Dust.  One of my favorite books, ever, is Carolyn Steedman’s Dust:  The Archive and Cultural History (Rutgers: 2002), in which she speculates that the mal d’archives, or archive fever (that Jacques Derrida bloviated about in this book) might have been caused by anthrax spores surviving in the bindings of ancient leather books.  But even short of anthrax, dust is a problem, particularly for those of us who have allergies already.  I keep on top of my allergies (which at their worst cause asthma attacks) with drugs I take daily, but I still suffer from an ongoing drip throughout a trip to the archives.  This was all the more noticeable on my last trip because whatever affects me in the general atmosphere in Connecticut was not present in Southern California, so every time I emerged from whatever library I was in the sniffles went away.   What to do?  After a couple days, I doubled my medication, which helped only because it is of the non-drowsy variety:  falling asleep won’t forward your research agenda.  Bring one of those cute little packs of Kleenex so that you don’t have to cast your eyes about furtively to make sure that no one sees you wipe your nose on your shirt.

I also advise against wearing contact lenses in the archives:  wear glasses for a day, see how much dust they pick up, then imagine that gluing itself to your eyes.

Hand and Wrist Pain.  The two days that I was in the no-copy, no-photography archive reminded me that typing for six to eight hours a day is not something your average archive table and chairs are made for. The tables are the wrong height, and the chairs are often gorgeous, hard wood works of art with no back support whatsoever.  I once saw a famous feminist historian walk into a manuscript room with a pile of couch pillows, which I suppose is one solution, although it is awkward and a little goofy.  My approach is to sit up as straight as possible, keep my hands parallel to the keyboard, and stand up to shake my hands vigorously every 30-45 minutes.  In this latter move, you drop your arms straight down, relax them and shake. It makes you look like you are doing the Hokey-Pokey, but so what?  At my age I fear carpal tunnel syndrome more than I fear charges of eccentricity.

A note:  I am glad to be done with Xeroxing, which is hard on the documents, environmentally unsound, and always caused me to worry about radiation.  That said, other than the logistics of getting your material organized after the trip, photography has its physical hazards.  Although I advocated for the cheap digital camera in this post, the truth is I took my expensive Nikon on this trip to see if it made a difference (particularly in reproducing feminist posters and graphics from conservative direct mail that would be at least usable in a Power Point, if not in the book.)  The wrist that bore the weight of the camera was persistently sore.  Now I know why other people use tripods.

Unrelated Coda:  Check out Caleb McDaniel’s instructions about  how to grade papers using an iPad.  Caleb, an assistant professor of United States history at Rice Univers
ity who is writing a book about transatlantic abolitionism, has himself a a nice new blog called Offprints.

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