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.
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!