What happens when you put on gloves? Can you handle clasps, ties or other delicate items? Can you turn a page? Are you clumsier? Can you feel things through your gloves?
When people picture librarians and archivists with fragile material, they often assume that cotton white gloves come with the territory. Despite what you may see on some television programmes, many libraries and archives recommend not using gloves on a regular basis. Here at Reading Special Collections, we only use gloves for very specific types of material, like glass negatives, that would be damaged by fingers – and usually we recommend latex or nitrile gloves rather than white cotton ones.
Why don’t we use white cotton gloves?
- Gloves reduce your dexterity. In other words, they can make you clumsier. Gloves, particularly white cotton ones, aren’t very fitted. You can’t grip things as well or as carefully with them on as you can with bare fingertips, which means it’s much easier to tear a page accidentally when you’re wearing gloves.
- Gloves get dirty. White cotton gloves aren’t sterile, and their absorbent fabric surface picks up lots of dirt and debris. As our visitors know, old manuscripts and books can get your hands filthy! When all this dirt ends up on gloves, it can transfer to other books and manuscripts and cause damage.
- Gloves stop you from learning about an item. Many scholars – and indeed our staff – need to know about an item’s physical qualities. The feel of the paper can tell you more about its history and production, for example. This type of engagement with the physical object becomes impossible when you’re wearing cotton gloves.
So what do we recommend instead? Handle our manuscripts and rare books with clean, dry hands. We might ask you to use gloves for certain items in our collections that react more strongly to dirt or human oils – some glass negatives, art or other delicate objects, for example. But on the whole, if you are clean and careful in your handling, your skin won’t cause any significant damage. This short video from the British Library shows how NOT to handle a manuscript with gloves.
Interested in learning more? ‘Misperceptions about White Gloves’ is a great starting point from the IFLA International Preservation News journal. You can also take a look at the National Archives and British Library policies on gloves use.