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.
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.