Posted by on July 28, 2014 in In The Community

Besides death and taxes, there is a third certainty of life: Have someone on television handle an old document without wearing white gloves and you will hear shocked people all across social media. Slightly less certain are the comments of those who are shocked when someone does wear white gloves when handling a document.

Welcome to the White Glove Debate.

When I was in library school, the white gloves question came up in all of my archive classes. The professors and the visiting archivists all had the same answer: Don’t wear gloves unless you’re handling photographs or a material that could be harmed by fingerprints. The gloves could do more harm than good.

How could gloves hurt paper? Gloves reduce your sense of touch. Simply put, you’re clumsier when you wear gloves. You stand a greater chance of ripping or creasing the paper because you cannot feel the paper and you’ve lost fine dexterity.

I have a family Bible that was printed in 1882. The front cover is missing and several pages in the back have come loose and are frayed. Though I own a pair of white gloves, I don’t wear them when handling this Bible because I wouldn’t be able to feel how one of those pages is behaving when I touch it. It would be way too easy to break off more of the edges.

Blackstone family Bible, published in 1882. In the possession of Amy Crow.

Blackstone family Bible, published in 1882. In the possession of Amy Crow.

The use of gloves in archives is not a centuries-old tradition. In their article “Misperceptions About White Gloves” (International Preservation News, December 2005), Cathleen A. Baker and Randy Silverman report that using white gloves with documents didn’t become popular until the 1990s. Baker and Silverman propose that it came about as the number of archival material catalogs grew. Others, such as Grace Pritchard-Woods, believe that it has grown from the popularity of history. “It could also be said that gloves contribute toward our experience of the past by building a sense of anticipation and occasion when we view historical material,” she proposes.

A Move Away from White Gloves

More and more archives are moving away from requiring white gloves for some of their archival material. The National Archives and Record Administration (US), the Library of Congress, The National Archives (UK), and the British Library are just some of the major repositories that allow researchers to handle some documents without gloves.

A Word About Photographs

One area where there is little, if any, debate is when handling photographs, negatives, and film. Fingerprints on those items can do irreparable harm. Gloves (either the “traditional” cotton or the newer nitrile gloves) should always be worn when handling those items.

Follow the Rules and Use Common Sense

No matter what archive you’re in, follow their rules. If they say to use gloves, use gloves. If they say that you can handle that collection of 19th century letters without gloves, use some common sense. Wash your hands first and handle the documents gently.

I had the opportunity to visit the OCLC archives and hold Melville Dewey’s personal copy of the first edition of his decimal classification, complete with his notes for the second edition. Yes, the book that first outlined the Dewey Decimal System. I was in library geek heaven. As I held it (without gloves), my primary thought was, “Don’t drool on it.” Gloves would not have protected the book from that!

About Amy Johnson Crow

Amy Johnson Crow is a Community Manager for Ancestry.com. She's a Certified Genealogist and an active lecturer and author. Her roots run deep in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. She earned her Masters degree in Library and Information Science at Kent State University. Amy loves to help people discover the joys of learning about their ancestors and she thinks that there are few things better than a day in a cemetery. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and No Story Too Small.

9 Comments

Sue Balow Parker 

Thank you so much! This subject drives me crazy when I watch “Who Do You Think You Are”. My thought is that certainly, we all wear lotion on our hands, which would then transfer to the paper.

I now understand your point, as I do the same, no gloves, with some of my old books that have pages which need to be turned with great care.

July 28, 2014 at 11:57 am
Mary Clarke Merlino 

I am so glad you have explained this as we have seen both done. Now I know why we are seeing fewer people wear gloves.

July 28, 2014 at 12:04 pm
Lynn Pankonin 

Finally! I’ve been in the museum/archives field for almost 40 years and this has been a recurring argument. Common sense is the key. Keep your hands clean and revel in the touch of history! Thank you!

July 28, 2014 at 12:53 pm
Sheena Jarvis 

I was under the impression that one of the reasons to use gloves was due to oil,sweat etc that are released thru our hands and fingers could damage very old paper?

July 28, 2014 at 9:23 pm
Diane Gould Hall 

Thank you for the clairification. I did wonder when I saw the first episode of Who Do You Think You Are and the guy with no gloves. Now I am informed.
Thanks,
Diane

July 28, 2014 at 10:13 pm
Don Hill 

Common sense trumps. Have clean hands. That’s all there is to it! Not sure if your hands are clean? Then wash them.

July 29, 2014 at 10:21 am
Valerie Eichler Lair 

Amen! Thank you Amy for your perfectly stated explanation. ;o)

July 31, 2014 at 11:00 am
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