The first time I stepped into an archive, it was a scorching hot day in the middle of February. I remember sweating like crazy while one of the archivists gave me a tour of the place. Five seconds later, I was sweating and also sneezing non-stop. What future as a professional historian could I have, I wondered, when literally walking into an archive triggered my allergies. It was 2012, and I was a second-year History undergrad studying at the University of Havana, Cuba.
The last time I stepped into an archive, it was the end of January and it was well below zero. It was my second winter in Canada, and although I felt more comfortable with it, my nose still bled every single day. It was 2020, and I was finishing a Master’s degree in History and Irish Studies in Montréal, Québec. A little over a month later, the world came to standstill, and I was left wondering when will I be back to the archives.
I like to say, and I say it often, that doing archival research in Cuba prepared me for a global pandemic and COVID-19. For example, long before wearing a mask became an essential personal protective measure, I had already adopted it as a standard practice every time I went into the National Archives (ANC) in Havana searching for Irish immigrants and their hidden histories.
“A woman died here.” That was frequent hearsay that haunted the halls of the ANC.
“Yes, one day someone put a request for a document, she went into the deposit, and caught a deadly fungus that spread to her lungs and killed her.”
There were many unofficial versions of the same story. In others it was either an unnamed virus or a rarely-found bacteria. The reality was that when I came home that day, my mother — who is a doctor — gave me a surgical mask, gloves, and a bottle of hand sanitizer.
“Use them!” she commanded.
From that moment on, perusing slowly decomposing and fragile documents, whose dust made the skin of my arms itchy, became a tolerable experience. The sneezing disappeared for as long as I had the mask on.
A month after my last trip to the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ) for the GMM Project, the first mask mandate arrived and COVID-19 became our daily reality. In my case, I just dusted off my archive rituals and brought back to my life the mask, the gloves, and the hand sanitizer.