The Myth of Wearing White Gloves

whiteglovesArchivists and curators have long required the use of white cotton gloves for handling very old paper or old books, when the paper is brittle and threatens to crumble. In fact, on one episodes of the popular television series Who Do You Think You Are? the guests and even some of the experts shown in the program were criticized for not wearing cotton gloves when handling old documents. However, experts now say that the use of white gloves not only provides a false sense of security but even can induce more damage than handling the same documents with bare hands! On the other, um, hand, simple frequent washing and drying of the hands may be the better solution.

In an article that first appeared in the December 2005 issue of International Preservation News, conservation consultant Cathleen A. Baker and librarian Randy Silverman argued that for the handling of most types of materials, white gloves don’t help and actually may contribute to the damage. As they pointed out, handling books with gloves is apt to do more harm than good. Gloves are just as likely to be dirty as fingers, especially if they have been used a number of times previously and have already absorbed dirt and chemicals from previously-handled papers. Once absorbed into the cotton, dirt, abrasive grit, and chemicals are easily spread from one old document to another. Washing the gloves frequently is only a partial solution since chemicals from detergents are retained in the cotton fibers and then spread to documents handled later.

A second issue is the loss of dexterity when wearing gloves. Without tactile “feel,” wearing gloves actually increases the potential for physically damaging fragile material through mishandling. This is especially true for ultra thin or brittle papers that become far more difficult to handle with the sense of touch dulled.

Baker and Silverman wrote, “Routine hand washing is recommended as a more effective means of preventing the spread of dirt while improving the user’s haptic response to and tactile appreciation of the collections.”

They also stated, “Institutional insistence that patrons and special collections staff don white cotton gloves when handling rare books and documents to prevent dirt and skin oils from damaging paper-based collections is inherently flawed; gloves are as easily soiled as bare hands. Cotton gloves are extremely absorbent, both from within and without; for example, even a scrupulously clean reading room provides numerous opportunities for gloves to pick up and transfer dirt to surfaces such as a text page.”

Finally, they wrote: “White cotton gloves provide no guarantee of protecting books and paper from perspiration and dirt, yet they increase the likelihood of people inflicting physical damage to collection material. Implementing a universally observed, hand-cleaning policy is a reasonable and effective alternative to glove-use, and it follows the standard protocol employed by book and paper conservators before handling the very same material.”

The authors did point out that their recommendations are limited to paper. Other materials, such as photographic prints, negatives, and slides, have their own unique set of requirements.

You can read the entire report by Cathleen A. Baker and Randy Silverman at http://www.ifla.org/files/assets/pac/ipn/ipnn37.pdf.

Other preservation organizations agree. Rather than wearing gloves, the American Institute for Conservation of Historical and Artistic Works instructs conservators to “handle books only with freshly washed hands.” Then they recognize that “wearing white cotton gloves for handling rare bindings is a good preventive measure, but turning fragile or brittle pages with gloves may cause damage and is not advised.” Thoroughly washing hands with lotion-free soap will remove most of the dirt, grease, and oils that may be left on pages.

Microfilm and digitization crews at The National Archives in London now follow the same rules for handling documents as those in the reading rooms – they have to remove their white gloves!

9 Comments

Perhaps they should also add, clean white gloves, and toss them frequently when soiled!

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I would think that the latex gloves similar to those worn by the medical profession would be better. They are one-time-use and cheap enough to throw away after use.

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When handling things with gloves, it is difficult to “feel” and papers may get dropped or damaged.

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Dr Penelope Christensen January 10, 2017 at 1:27 pm

My brother, an expert hand bookbinder and restoration expert, maintained that books with leather bindings actually benefit from being handled without gloves. The oils from one’s skin are good for the leather and prevent it from going powdery.

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Agree with the comment above. Research has found that very old folios that were used have lasted much better than those that were just stored for rare occasions. Thank you for featuring this subject.

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I am not sure about others, but my hands are small and I’ve not found latex gloves to fit me well enough to give me confidence in working with delicate papers. I had long been uncomfortable using cotton gloves to handle documents due to not being able to feel them; I was really glad when told by a conservator that if wearing the gloves was going to cause damage, take them off. In addition, my granddaughter is a student worker at a large university library – in special collections. She was telling me how raw their hands get because they have to wash them so frequently; but the documents they are handling would not survive use of gloves. So yes to bare hands, but ALWAYS freshly washed bare hands.

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Thank you for broadcasting this information out to your readers. The debate about to wear gloves or not while handling treasured manuscripts or paper documents has raged on for some time. And, indeed it is well established paper loves clean, dry hands washed a non-ionic surfactant and well rinsed by water. (Remember hand sanitizers are not the equivalent to hand washing as they contain about 65 percent ethyl alcohol — pure alcohol — with some of it is absorbed into the skin and ultimately into one’s body.) However, I might point out this glove myth buster does not apply about wearing gloves while handling most photographs or negatives. The hands and feet contain more eccrine sweat glands than many other parts of the body excreting both water and salt. That makes wearing the appropriate type of gloves while handling photos important, if you wish to keep them clean and free of fingerprints. Unfortunately, too many individuals rely upon inexpensive, ill-fitting protection for their hands resulting in reduction of both tactile and mobility functions of the phalanges. They also fail to understand that just like their hands, gloves require proper attention to being frequently changed, with the laundered ones either properly washed or disposed of.

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