White Gloves

Everyone knows that white cotton gloves should be worn when handling precious books and manuscripts, right? Well, it turns out that the need for white gloves is just as based in fact as all those Eskimo words for snow you’ve been told about. The British Museum, for instance, does not want you to wear white cotton gloves when you are handling most of the items in their collections. I know this from personal experience. When I spent time in their Prints and Drawings Students’ Room some years ago, I was not made to wear gloves, and, in fact, they were not offered. I’ve always been curious about that. And now I know why. It turns out that materials are more likely to be damaged if you are wearing gloves. Awkward cotton gloves reduce dexterity and make you clumsier. The risk from bare skin against precious items is overblown. Clean hands are preferable.

From the British Library's Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts Blog.

According to a 2005 article by Cathleen Baker and Randy Silverman, Misperceptions about White Gloves, in International Preservation News:

…it appears that cotton glove-use spread to the rare book and archives reading room only in the last decade of the twentieth century, suggesting this practice is less than 20 years old. This development was probably driven by the good intentions of some curators with ready access to archival supply catalogues in which vendors have increasingly represented glove-use as a standard component of library and archival practice. Yet, while many curators remain convinced of the efficacy of glove-use for patrons in reading rooms, others do not…

In other words, it’s mostly marketing. I love it when accepted wisdom gets turned on its head.

8 thoughts on “White Gloves”

  1. Oh yes. And I really, really love it when it is accepted medical wisdom. I read somewhere that a doctor who visited Turkey was very impressed with the beautiful skin on most of the people he had met. He also noticed that many of the women were more or less constantly eating sweet things. And you can guess what his advice to patients plagued with poor skin was.
    And another gem was a doctor recommending that patients who lived in less than salubrious conditions – slums in other words, should take up smoking to relieve congestion and clear the air.

    • Medical people are likely the worst when it comes to this sort of thing, I agree. I think most people would be surprised how unscientifically based most medical recommendations are.

  2. This is pretty hilarious, especially since in my experience it’s been the poshest book rooms that have done the most insisting around glove wearing. When visiting bookbinders and printers I’m almost never asked to wear gloves when looking through their books. Ha! Also thanks for visiting my blog so that I could find yours.

    • Hi Lisa–thanks for stopping by. Glad you found this as interesting as I did. I actually found your blog through Flickr–I believe you ‘favorited’ one of my paste papers (thanks!). I was fascinated by your pictures, and when I realized you were a book person, I just had to check out your blog. And, dang, now I’m having paste painting urges again!

  3. Thats Funny!

    I will be sharing this link with my local museum!

    A few weeks ago I was asked to help put together some cases for an upcoming exhibition. I was horrified when I was handed a pair of gloves to handle the objects…

    … if these had been white, cotton gloves I would have been quite excited, but no – I was forced to wear purple, latex, (size large) baggy gloves! Horrid! I could not feel things properly, and I got sweaty hands! Not a good look!!!

    Mary xx

    • Ugh! I feel for you. I had a similar experience at a book art show in the San Francisco Bay Area a few years ago. It was a fabulous show, but we had to put on latex-style gloves at the door. Even though I take a small glove size, these were actually too tight. My hands were sopping in sweat and, worst of all for me, I have neuropathy problems with my hands–when they get warm, it feels like I’m holding my hands over a blazing stovetop element. It was a warm day. I stuck it out for the show, but my sense was that all it did was make me clumsier. How much better it would have been, I think, if they’d instead insured that everyone used hand cleaner at the door to prevent fingerprints.

      At this point, I think glove-wearing is as much a symbolic ritual as anything. It is for signifying that you are holding something of value and importance.

      • Perhaps, many years hence, anthropologists will find our archives and write weighty tomes on the “religious artifacts” with great spiritual emphasis given to gloves! ;-)

        And I do think the idea of anti-bac gel at the door is a good one. I’ll take some with me next month if anyone wants to handle my books!

        • Di! So lovely to hear from you, world traveler. In all seriousness, I do think it has anthropological interest. I’m sure it has more to do with the ritual than anything protective for the books.

          As for the gel, I’m wondering if hand wipes might be better? I’ve used some gels that actually make hands feel stickier. The idea is to get the grimy sweat and chip grease off of them. I wish I could handle your books next month! Sounds great.

Leave a Comment

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail.