Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

The following was advice I received from a history professor about how to properly handle extremely old primary sources in archives and not become ill.

I was in a reading and discussion class being taught by Claudio Pena, a Marxist historian specializing in Latin American history. He had wild black curls for hair and was always dressed in black.

I had come back from the vending machine with a soda and chips and sat down at the large wooden table we all shared in the classroom discussion. The professor was waiting for everyone to come back from the bathroom/smoke break at the halfway point of the hour-long class.

While he was waiting he got up and began to pace before finally stopping to stare out a window and say, “Fellows, here is a tip for all of you the next time you go visit an archive or research library. Always wash your hands after touching 300-year-old sources but before going to the bathroom.”

The projection screen was pulled down and the professor’s power point was still up. The slide we stopped at was of an image of a book with stains on it. He walked away from the window and stood next to the projector screen, pointing at the image.

“Those purple stains on the page of that codex, it’s not ink, it’s some kind of weird fungus that’s been sitting there growing on the page. You don’t want to get that on yourself,” he said gravely.

A student sitting across from me chuckled and raised his hand as he said, “So wait…you can get herpes from a primary source?”

Professor Pena did not laugh. He looked squarely at each one of us, the hum of the projector bulb the only noise in the room.

“No, you’ll be lucky if all you get is herpes. I mean, what doctor is going to know how to treat you for a bacteria or fungus that’s been growing on the page of a book for three hundred years?,” he said as he crossed his arms and stared down the brim of his nose at us.

“Historical research really is life and limb isn’t it?,” asked another, now visibly disturbed, student.

Professor Pena folded his arms across his chest and with a smile said, “My friends, coming in contact with strange and unknown fungi and bacteria are one of the great unspoken dangers of serious historical research. I have friends that have gotten sick from it.”

Then we continued the class discussion on the readings we were assigned that week. I wash my hands now whenever I touch old paper. Ω

Notes from the peanut gallery.

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