When we think of academe as “the life of the mind,” we’re obscuring one basic fact: Conducting research can take a real physical toll on a scholar’s body.
No, scholarship isn’t a dangerous factory job. But hours spent hunched over in library carrels, staring at computer screens, and pecking away at keyboards can cause any number of problems—eye strain, headaches, back and neck pain, repetitive strain injuries, and the like.
And for some scholars, there’s a piece of equipment that’s as unhealthy as it is inescapable: the microfilm machine. Even in our world of digitization, microfilm remains relevant. Librarians, journalists, lawyers, genealogists, and historians still spend plenty of time digging up obscure and underpublicized sources like local newspapers, old maps, government documents, and city directories. That stuff tends to be preserved on microfilm only.
For years I’ve been a chronic sufferer of microfilm malaise. Much of my historical research requires me to comb through late 19th- and early 20th-century medical journals, court records, and local newspapers. The rolling of the pages across the screen, the whir of the spindle, the dark all around: It makes me dizzy, heats my body like a raging furnace, rocks my stomach, and induces a gagging that nearly costs me my lunch every time I use a microfilm machine.
I’ve never talked about it, because I’ve spent so much time doing research in isolation and because I’ve just assumed that there’s something uniquely wrong me. But apparently I’m not the only researcher with the problem.
“Oh man, do I ever get it,” says Alyssa Picard, assistant director of the American Federation of Teachers’ higher-education department. “But there’s really no substitute for the context you get from microfilmed full pages versus digitized articles, and the pleasure of discovering stuff by chance is almost worth it. I take Dramamine.”
Nicole Guenther Discenza, an associate professor of English at the University of South Florida, first experienced microfilm sickness in grad school, when she was working on her dissertation. (Her research examined a ninth-century translation of Boëthius’s Consolation of Philosophy.) When she used microfilm or microfiche, she could only last short stretches of time before getting sick.
“My eyes would cross, I’d get dizzy, then I’d get a headache because the text was hard to look at as it went by on the screen,” Discenza recalls. “I learned to shift my gaze and glance away while moving past large sections.”
But that didn’t always work. When it failed, she’d turn the handle, keep her eyes closed, stop, look at the screen to see where she was, close her eyes again, turn, stop, and look. It was a time-consuming technique. When she’d finally found what she was looking for, she’d print out the pages instead of reading from the screen and taking notes.
It might sound trivial, but to Discenza, it became a serious concern. She grew anxious about using microfilm machines—and about the printing charges she was racking up. “All those printouts cost a lot of money,” she says. “For a grad student, it wasn’t cheap.”
Adam Gaudry, an assistant professor of native studies at the University of Saskatchewan, teaches and researches indigenous politics, a topic that requires him to spend a great deal of time on archival research. His sickness started in grad school when he had to locate and read handwritten court documents from the 19th century. Like me, Gaudry thought his weak stomach was a personal problem. He’s gotten so sick that he’s had to put his head on the desk and be still.
Gaudry has never barfed in the archives—he usually quits before that happens—but he has had to cap his research time at three or four hours. Sometimes he’ll take a break, switching to print sources until the nausea subsides.
It’s a hard problem to talk about, he admits, because research seems like such a basic part of his job description. “As scholars we’re supposed to be able to spend hours in the archives,” Gaudry says. “I was embarrassed because I thought I didn’t have the stamina to use microfilm.”
So lets consider the question that inevitably gets asked: Is microfilm sickness a real thing? I called around to a few university and research libraries, including the National Medical Library, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Schomburg Center in Harlem, and the Harvard College Library. None of the librarians at those institutions have ever heard of it.
“I have asked our staff who deal directly with people using microfilm,” says Martin Schreiner, head of maps, media, data and government information at Harvard, “and we are not aware of anyone ever experiencing motion sickness from using our machines.”
Two experts I got in touch with, both of whom suffer from motion sickness, couldn’t give me any quantitative data on how many people suffer from this ailment. (Scientists, they say, tend to focus on traditional forms of motion sickness—the kinds that affect people in cars, boats, planes, movie theaters, and video games.)
But there is a perfectly sound scientific explanation for the phenomenon, they tell me. W. Steven Pray, a professor of pharmacy at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, explains that microfilm sickness is actually the opposite of the traditional type of motion-related nausea that people experience in moving vehicles. It’s called “reverse motion sickness,” and it happens when the eyes register motion, but the vestibular systems (all those little hairs, particles, canals, nerves, sacs, and pouches in the inner ear that help with spatial orientation, movement, and balance), and the proprioceptive system (muscles, ligaments, and tendons in the body) don’t agree with what the eyes see.
Thomas A. Stoffregen, director of the Affordance Perception-Action Laboratory at the University of Minnesota, confirms Pray’s analysis. “If the inner ear tells the brain it senses motion but the eyes are telling the brain that things are standing still, then your brain is trying to make sense of the input. And it sends a false, crazy signal to puke,” Stoffregen says.
“Vision is one of the inputs that we use to stabilize the entire body,” Pray says. So if there’s text moving under your eyes in ways that you don’t fully control, then you have to try to compensate. That can make you sick.
“You are trying to stabilize your gaze relative to the microfilm, but also to the chair,” Pray says. “You’d better not get those confused, or you’ll be in trouble.”
So there you go, scholars: Your struggles with microfilm aren’t just your own. But what can you do to keep from getting sick?
Pray and Stoffregen say there’s no magic bullet, but there are preventative steps that can be taken. A few options to consider:
Take inexpensive, over-the-counter medications like Dramamine, Bonine, and Meclizine. There’s a potential downside to going this route, though: These medicines are mild sedatives that might make you drowsy and make it difficult for you to stay focused.
If you don’t want to take meds, Stoffregen suggests that you take breaks every 20 minutes. Set the alarm on your watch or cell phone, and be diligent about getting up when it tells you to. “Don’t wait until you get sick,” he says. “Make a deliberate effort to close your eyes for a minute every once in a while. Get up and walk around.”
Bring a snack. From my own experience, I’ve found that eating ginger candy, ginger snaps, or chocolate bars can help.
Want to take the long view? In that case, ask your library if it can move past microfilm. “Microfilm sickness certainly makes a good case for digitizing things,” Pray says. “It’s an occupational hazard because it slows the pace of research and can cause you to miss key evidence.”
There is good news, though: One option might be just to stick it out. Stoffregen says that some people who suffer from traditional forms of motion sickness can eventually adapt as they lengthen their exposure time. The same might be true for those who suffer from reverse motion sickness. The truth is, we just don’t yet know yet.