Having a body in the archive

September 16, 2021

In Sensing Changes (2010), historian of technology Joy Parr describes how workers at the Lepreau nuclear power plan in New Brunswick, Canada learned to adjust their bodies to the protective equipment they carried. For example, they learned to adapt their walking gait and posture to ensure that the radiation detection instruments could give them accurate information about their exposure and risk.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Parr’s insight that for these workers, the knowledge they relied on was “a skilled arbitrage of time, distance, and shielding, a performed repertoire of embodied practices guided by instruments.” (67) This is just one, beautifully described and characterized, example of how the body exists while working, being remade and adjusted to accommodate the task and its attendant tools. Recently, I’ve realized that on a smaller, and entirely safer, level, I too have been training my body to the tools I use.

The prevailing advice from advisors and mentors as I started archival research was to photograph everything that looked promising and then take the time to read and think later, since time in archives and research travel funds are always limited. So, I skim through the materials in a particular folder, get a sense for what’s there, and then start trying to take pictures of everything. To speed up the last part of this process, I use an app that will automatically detect the corners of a sheet of paper and then photograph it with a very sharp focus, saving me the time of clicking to focus and then clicking to take the picture. It may sound small, but it adds up. Plus, my first few archival trips revealed that I may be singularly unable to take a photograph of a document in focus.

A few weeks ago, I returned home from a particularly busy research trip. On the last day of the trip, I spent nearly five uninterrupted hours in the library and archive of an institution I had spent months trying to contact. I’d received the opportunity to visit this archive at the last minute, after a helpful call from the archivist at another institution. At 6 pm I knew the building would be closing soon, but I still had one and a half boxes to go, and I’d just discovered that the documents I wanted to see most were in those boxes. I lifted down the last two boxes, each bankers boxes stuffed to breaking with papers, reports, minutes, and correspondence, and staggered over to the table that had been cleared for me to work. Every minute I rushed to take more pictures of the documents, watching it get later and later, knowing that any minute the lone staffer would come upstairs and tell me she really did have to go home. I’m still not sure if it’s a low point or a high point in my research life to have stayed forty-five minutes past closing at a library on a Friday evening. It was worth it though—now I know where to find these documents and I have a handful I can start reading.

Driving back to the apartment I was renting, I noticed that I was leaning ever farther to the left in my seat. At the same time, a twinge ran up my right arm, reminding me a little bit of the pain that too many years of poor violin playing form have left me with. I could see some of the shape of things to come: For the next few days my arms would ache from lifting those boxes. But there was more to it. There was a particular sense of recent activity in my abs and the tops of my ears ached from my mask. My body felt those five hours in the library as much as my mind did.

To keep the app I use working as quickly as possible, my first insight was to bring a piece of dark paper or to move the pile of documents to a dark surface. This way the app could clearly distinguish the edges of the page and more quickly scan the document. Next, I learned to turn off any bright overhead lights if the documents were on shiny coated paper—say special reports and brochures and photographs.

It is hard not to personify the app, noticing that it prefers if the document is portrait rather than landscape, that it likes to have crisp edges, meaning that to photograph pages from a book I need to alternate holding vertical the other side of the book to get a clear, rectangular image. I feel, sometimes, like I’m bargaining with it: if I stand up and hold my shoulder a little higher, will you take photos just a little faster, please?

It seems entirely par for the course that the app works most efficiently when I am standing. Alone in the library I discovered that if I perched on my knees on the chair and held out the arm with the phone in it just so, engaging my abs to keep my body steady, the app could work particularly quickly. I’m not tall. Sitting or standing, the best distance for the phone to be from a document to quickly capture a clear, readable scan tends to be about twelve to sixteen inches above the table, a height which requires me to hold the phone up, feeling the same muscles that hold and move my violin’s bow.

In short, I am learning to adjust my posture, the way I stand or sit, the movements I make with my hands and arms, in order to capture the images I needed from the archives. It doesn’t take that long for a small knot to begin in my right arm—relieved briefly whenever I pause to jot down a note and open a new folder of documents. It takes a little longer for my back to start aching from the stiff pose I hold that helps the app to work efficiently. I trained my body to work with the instrument at hand. I’m learning to embody the techniques that enable this part of my work.

With gratitude and apologies to:
Joy Parr
Pamela H. Smith
Battlestar Galactica, 2004-2009