Paging Through the Past

[This post is part of my series A Catalog of (Medical) Curiosity, which I blog about the book I'm writing. For more info, here's the introductory post.]

I recently spent an hour and a half  paging through documents from the 1870s through 1890s. I found a lot of cool stuff, but I didn't find what I was looking for, which was useful tidbits about the use of carbolic acid sprayers. I did find a couple of new leads of resources to look up, so that's something! I wrote a bit about archives for people who only have a vague idea of what that is before the visit. Now, here are the nuts and bolts of this research trip.

The reading room of the USCF library archives has a glass wall looking out into a regular reading area and library stacks, but the door is kept locked. When I arrived for my appointment, a student worker let me in. Things were set out for me. The carbolic acid sprayer itself was in the middle of the table on a burgundy-colored cloth, and the boxes of documents I had ordered were on a cart next to it. Beside the sprayer was a pair of white cloth gloves.

Gloves are the center of some controversy in the artifact and archival world. For a long time, the standard was to always wear white cotton gloves when handling something that's being preserved in an archive or museum, to protect the materials from the natural oils in your skin. However, they're kind of clumsy, especially the ones that are sold in bulk so you can offer every researcher a fresh pair without doing laundry that often. They're a little less stretchy than socks, and never fit quite right. Some places prefer plastic gloves, and some go gloveless. At USCF, they have a pretty common policy: gloves for the artifact, no gloves for the documents, so you don't accidentally tear the paper.

A contraption of wood painted black, metal, glass, and rubber tubing. It's on a burgundy cloth background.
The sprayer itself.

I realized on my way there that I only had pens with me, but I figured I could ask to borrow a pencil to take notes with. When I got there, there was a big container of pencils at the front of the desk, clearly for people in my position. That's another rule of almost every archives: pencils only, because the documents you're working with are often one-of-a-kind, so you don't want to risk an accidental permanent mark.

One idea archivists (and people who manage artifact collections) are constantly aware of is that things fall apart. More specifically, materials change with age, especially organic materials like paper, wood, many types of cloth, etc. When breaks down with age, it releases acids that further break it down. Different types of paper do this at different rates: older or higher-quality paper that has some cloth content breaks down slowly, while cheaply made, "pulpy" paper like in newspapers or some paperbacks breaks down quickly. If you've seen a newspaper that's been sitting around for a few years get yellow and brittle, you've seen this in action. There's not a lot that can be done about what kind of paper something was printed on, although you can make copies in case the original deteriorates. However, archivists do slow the breakdown process by minimizing the amount the paper is exposed to light, and by ensuring the paper isn't exposed to extra acids. They also control for other factors that can harm paper, like humidity and pests. If you'd like to learn some of the details, the Canadian Conservation Institute has guidelines for free online.

Protecting against extra acids means that any other paper that comes into contact with the historical paper -- like the folders things are stored in -- has to be acid-free or pH-buffered (having been treated so it won't leach acid). Some places store the folders in plastic boxes, but the most common form is a sturdy, pH-buffered box. These boxes often have metal reinforcing the corners or every edge, on the outside of course so the metal and paper documents don't interact as they age. The brand Hollinger Metal-Edge is widespread enough in archives and museums that a lot of us informally call archival boxes "Hollingers." (Sorry, brand, we don't mean to pull an aspirin on you).

Three upright cardboard boxes with metal edges on a library cart, with a cabinet of old books in the background. Each box is a different drab color.
The boxes of Dr. Brigham's papers that were waiting for me.

So, what did I find in Dr. Charles Brigham's papers, if not good anecdotes about the carbolic acid spray that was used to keep surgical environments sterile? One of his notebooks from med school (box 3, folder 2), which was just a little too early to have anything about Lister's methods in it, but very cool. An undated letter about a hernia operation (box 1, folder 2) that included the line, "The operation is easy to do and hard to describe." He went on to describe it anyway, mentioning stitching techniques and drainage tubes, but nothing about the environment. This surgeon was the first in the U.S. to succeed at fully removing a patient's stomach to treat stomach cancer -- she lived another 20 years and in fact outlived him -- so there was a lot of information on that, as well as letters of congratulations from colleagues, requests for the article he wrote on the case, etc. I was briefly hopeful when I saw a letter from J. Collins Warren at Massachusetts General Hospital. It was fun because that's where I work, but also seemed like a lead because he was the one who introduced methods like the carbolic acid sprayer at Mass General. Sadly for me, it was just a letter of introduction to a colleague.

I didn't read every page in the folders. That would have taken all day, or perhaps longer, because it can be slow going deciphering even a modern doctor's handwriting, let alone one from the 1870s. What I did do is (very gently) leaf through enough of each folder to get a sense of how likely it was that I'd find something good, and I stopped when I got to a point where more thoroughness was yielding notably diminishing returns. For a different research goal, that point may have come a bit sooner, or much later. As far as what will actually be in the chapter on the sprayer, you'll have to wait until the book comes out.

One final note: when you see headlines that an important document, say, the first draft of a famous poem, was "unearthed" or "discovered" in an archives, it usually wasn't lost. In some cases, it may truly have been "discovered" but still hadn't been lost -- for example, if the poem draft was in a letter to the poet's brother, and the finding aid said "letters to family, 1868-1885." Folder-level descriptions rather than item-level descriptions are common, because noting what's on every piece of paper is usually needlessly time-consuming. But in many cases, archivists knew exactly where it was, and it was listed in the relevant finding aid and indexed in all the right places. It's just a matter of whether a poetry scholar or biographer has looked for it. Archives Twitter always has something to say when reporters do this.

Image of warehouse from Indiana Jones movie, with boxes stacked on either side of a long aisle.
I'm sure I'm not the first to say it doesn't look like this in most museums or archives. For one thing, we have this cool technology called shelves!