Monday, March 14, 2011

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

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 University who is writing a book about transatlantic abolitionism, has himself a a nice new blog called Offprints.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

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.

Codeine, vodka, and valium!?!?!? As for everyone!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Shane Landrum said...

I've avoided taking a tripod to the archives with my compact digital camera, but I use my desk-mounted monopod in any library that will allow it (including most NARA facilities). There's a beefier version for SLR cameras which I haven't used, but I suspect it could be handy for some researchers.

The advantage to either of these is that they're lightweight, fold small enough to fit easily in one's luggage, and are easy to aim down at the table. (They're not quite as suitable for items larger than legal size, though.) And a full day of using either one requires lots of stretching, since standing at a table and looking down can be wearing on the neck and shoulders.

On a related note, for what to do with images after you've got them: Miriam Posner's batch-processing images from your research trip is a nice, minimally-technical guide aimed at people using Apple computers. For those who aren't afraid of doing a bit of computer programming: Chad Black has an interesting recent blog post about his approach for naming images in a way that makes them easy to cite.

Tenured Radical said...

You betcha. As the liver turns, baby.

Anonymous said...

I don't do *much* archival work, but man, when I do I am constantly scrubbing myself to get the itchy itchy dust off. And my sneezes are so gross when I get out of there. Centuries of dust and who knows what else making its way into my nose. I should totally wear a face mask.

I hope my time period is too late for anthrax spores. Ick!

Also, I hear you on the papercuts.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

I hope you're feeling better soon!

I know some libraries that discourage using gloves to turn pages and handle some materials. Here's an example of a moderate policy:

As for paper cuts, I find that the most useful thing to do is keep my hands moisturized. Don't put on moisturizer in the archive (you probably can't bring it in anyway), but give your hands a good treatment in the morning and after lunch. Just allow enough time for it to be absorbed before you handle documents.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Oops--forgot to mention this article on "Misperceptions about White Gloves," by Cathleen Baker and Randy Silverman, in International Preservation News, no. 37, Dec. 2005.

Wynken de Worde said...

I was also going to chime in about the glove misperception--but I hadn't seen that link before, Brian, so many thanks!

I will add one other strategy: carry your laptop, camera, etc in a sturdy backpack, not a shoulder case! I get the typing injuries, but my biggest aches and long-lasting problems have come when I've tried to carry too much weight on one shoulder. A backpack will make your back much happier!

rustonite said...

I get awful back pain when I work too long. my regimine is vicodin, ibuprofin and cyclobenzaprine. add in a beer, and it's a horizontal vacation.

Anonymous said...

I threw my neck way out of whack once my first semester in grad school. I have this tendency to bend way too close to the paper when taking notes, and the only thing I could come up with is that I'd done that for too long on one particular term paper. I've tried to switch mostly to electronic for that reason (even though I still have to look at the book I'm taking notes from at least I don't bend over practically nose to it like when I'm taking hand written notes) even though I still have some kind of weird love for handwritten notes...

Northern Barbarian said...

Eye strain and some sea-sickness from staring at documents transferred fuzzily onto microfilm. Look around and focus on different distances frequently; stand up and stretch. I may try the glasses trick; my last bout with microfilm it took a disturbingly long time for my (aging) eyes to get their focus back properly.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Gotta read me that "dust" book. Sounds interesting. Which probably says something about me.

In the archives I work in, I am not allowed to mess with a cart full of boxes and such. The staff brings me out one thing. When I'm done, I take it back to the counter, and they hand me the next one.

But here's what does hurt: my eyeballs. Seriously, reading handwritten documents for hours on end causes a lot of strain. You're supposed to look up and alternate looking into middle and far distances for a few minutes every 20 minutes, but I always forget. And by the end of the day, my eyes ache, and I can only imagine the long-term damage this is doing.

Also, "Valley of the Dolls Method" made me giggle. Hope your back is feeling better. When you're semi-recovered so it doesn't cause searing pain, I'd recommend gentle twists, both seated and supine, held (while breathing deeply) for 30 seconds each direction. That's probably something to do before you get to the pain point, though.

(I also have back yoga recommendations, if you're interested. But I won't inflict them on you otherwise.)

Mary L. Dudziak said...

A further warning when back pain sets in, in case a horror story will help you protect your health while writing: When finishing my last book, I did my best to ignore *excruciating* back pain on my last archives trip. I never took breaks -- who has time, when the archives are open 9-5 and you can only be there for a few days? And then I worked constantly to try to meet my deadline, never thinking at all about whether the places & ways I was sitting might affect my back. And of course who has time for exercise when a deadline is looming? Not only did it get worse, but when I was a month from my deadline, I landed in the hospital with a herniated disc. It took months to fully recover, on crutches, since the herniation left me with a weak leg. And now I have a weak back forever.

So if you are not there yet, my advice is: breaks in the archives are essential, not optional; breaks while writing, esp. for exercise, are essential not optional; a gym is your best friend, and if one is not handy or affordable, do core strengthening at home. And if you've reached the point that codeine, vodka and valium are in order -- please make an appt. with a doc who will evaluate your back and maybe send you to physical therapy -- which is sometimes terrible, but often a life-saver. You have time for this, since you really don't have time to get hurt. Trying to ignore your back rather than treat, like I did, it puts you on the road to something worse.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

There is a reason all my books have thank yous to my chiropractor and my trainer. The chiro can tell when I move from archive work to writing from the pattern of pain: archive work = lower back; writing = recoil/impact problems in shoulders from bashing the keyboard.

Good luck.

Bardiac said...

I hurt my back carrying too many books in a rare book library (I was carrying a stack of non-rare ones). Thanks be, a physical therapist was able to help me stretch properly, and that's made a lifetime of difference. But it still gets tight just often enough to remind me I need to stretch more!

Tim Lacy said...

If we want to expand this out a bit from archival work, while adjuncting in the city of Chicago I acquired a malady I called "bus butt." This came from long bus rides to and from an institution where, thankfully, I taught only two days per week. The bus trip involved 1 hr 15 minute rides, each way, on a Chicago avenue (Montrose) that hit bumps and had several quick stops from speeding drivers. I worked at this school for about 2.5 years, and each semester, around week 13, I had developed bus butt. I never resolved whether the malady was muscular, involved tendons, or maybe even a disc.

Though I said this required a mental expansion from TR's post, I'm sure this malady applies to those working on archives in big cities where automobiles are a pain (or not owned, or not an option). - TL

Tenured Radical said...

Tim: Funny you should mention this, since for 15 years I commuted on a bi- or tri-monthly basis between Zenith and NYC. This often meant being in NY traffic for extended periods of time in a manual car. At a certain point I developed a spot on the ball of my left foot that was sometimes so sore I couldn't walk on it. An examination produced the diagnosis of a deep bruise, resulting (I am persuaded) from frequent clutching in stop & go traffic.

So we can add "commuter foot" to the list as well.

notabattlechick said...

I once got a paper cut while working in MACV documents at NARA II and thought nothing of it--hazard of the profession, I thought. I went to bed and woke up the next morning with a NASTY infection and a hugely swollen finger. Apparently, 40-year-old 'Nam grime is potent stuff.

The archival version of a punji stake.

undine said...

I hope you're feeling better soon, too, but thanks for letting us know that we're not alone in our minor (or major) archive miseries. Like Notorious PhD, I tend toward eyestrain, but the real problem for me is that skipping lunch (as Mary L. Dudziak mentions) leads to lightheadedness and eventually the inability to see either the screen or the documents.

Matt_L said...

Get well soon TR! Back pain is a major bummer and impediment to thought.

Susan said...

I hope your back recovers. I rarely get big boxes, but the major danger I face in archives is the parchment is often not just dirty, but there's oil on it, so it really sticks to your hands. Working on parchment, I wash my hands about once an hour.

And yes, I've been in the "mad rush no time for lunch mode" and ended with eyes in pain.

Shelly said...

I'm definitely facing the wrist issues from holding a camera and clicking all day. Perhaps a mono/tripod is in order....

anthony grafton said...

Dear TR,

Get the back evaluated, please. As a long term herniated disc sufferer, I feel your pain. Systematic stretches help.

Historiann said...

My goodness--I had no idea that I worked in such a hazardous profession! I've escaped serious injury until now anyway, but perhaps it's all just a matter of time.

(Perhaps it's also because there's so LITTLE evidence for what I'm writing about now that lifting large archival boxes really aren't a problem for me!)

Mary Dudziak's story is a cautionary tale. Yoga is a good lifetime fitness regime, as it provides strength as well as flexibility and improved balance.

Tenured Radical said...

Maybe some of our colleagues are also suffering the effects of repeated concussions because of the effects of those hard-hitting departmental debates. Should we wear helmets to school?

I'm thinking!

HistoryMaven said...

My former colleagues chuckled when I told them I ask my students to stand up and stretch, or walk around the room, during long seminars and final examinations. So many just take a break by sitting where they are and talking with their neighbors. The desks and chairs at my last university were awful, and as a left-hander my student years (when note-takinging was not a keyboard exercise) were spent getting to class early to find an appropriate desk or desks. My shoulder problems started there.

Feel better, TR!

Jessica Weiss said...

I have added a 'self care' for researchers and writers presentation to the senior thesis class for history majors. My students said they wished I had presented on the topic earlier in the quarter.

To all the recommendations to prevent research/writing/grading related back pain, I would also add pilates. Turns out you need your core when you sit, too. Engaging your core when you sit (up straight) keeps your vertebrae from sitting on one another and pinching nerves.