The Tudor Society

Do you need to wear gloves when handling old manuscripts and books?

Thank you so much to Tudor Society member Mary for asking this question. Mary's full question was "I've often wondered why certain old texts/manuscripts are only handled with gloved hands, while others are not. Can someone explain?"

This is something I can explain as I researched it a couple of years ago because I had comments when I shared a video of a historian touching a medieval manuscript without gloves. Those who viewed it were horrified, but archives' policies have changed and it's all for the best, to keep these precious manuscripts safe from harm so that they can be enjoyed by many more generations to come.

Jane Pimlott, Preservation Coordinator, for the British Library, which has a vast collection of historic manuscripts, explained:

"In general we do not use or provide white gloves for use with collection items. Clean dry hands, free from creams and lotions, are preferable in the majority of circumstances. Wearing cotton gloves when handling books, manuscripts or fragile paper items reduces manual dexterity and the sense of touch, increasing the tendency to 'grab' at items. The cotton fibres may lift or dislodge pigments and inks from the surface of pages and the textile can snag on page edges making them difficult to turn. All these factors increase the risk of damage to collection items."

She does explain that cotton gloves are still worn for handling some historic items, such as lead seals, but they are not advised for manuscripts.

Here is a video from the Preservation Department of the British Library:

Hannah Clare, a conservator at the National Archives, agrees with the British Library's stance on the wearing of gloves. She explains that gloves dull the wearer's sense, they can make the wearer clumsy, they can catch on fragile or damaged pages and they can transfer dirt from one document to another. She states "In handling most archival documents gloves are more of a hindrance than a help and they can actually pose a threat" and advises those handling manuscripts to do so with clean, dry hands.

Helen Jones, Library Cataloguer of the Wallace Collection, London, also states that she is "firmly on the no gloves side of the debate" because of the same reasons given by Hannah Clare and also because "Sweat simply soaks through them and could get to the book anyway" and "Many people are allergic to latex and such gloves are coated in a powder that is bad for books." She advises that hands should be freshly and thoroughly washed before handling books and manuscripts and that they should be free from hand lotion and nail polish.

Another person who agrees with this advice is Andrew Bush, Paper Conservation Adviser for the National Trust, who states that "The practice of handling books with cotton gloves arguably does more harm than good.". He adds "When washing facilities are far removed from libraries, use disposable alcohol-saturated wipes - that contain no skin lotions - and then paper towels to thoroughly dry hands."

In "Misperceptions about White Gloves", conservators Dr. Cathleen A. Baker and Randy Silverman conclude that "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." You can read their full article on the subject in the link in the Notes and Sources list below.

It all depends on what you are handling, but for old books and manuscripts, gloves are not advised.

Notes and Sources

There are 4 comments Go To Comment

  1. R

    Interesting post!

    Something else museums can do is to digitize their collections.

  2. R

    Very interesting. I would think it depends on the state of the item but of course if its too delicate you can’t handle anyway. Most of the best collections, of which I am proud we have one of the oldest, biggest and rarest of outside of the capital, for all of the attention London gets, are now on digital and you can see a good interactive copy of rare manuscripts. There are more and more online including the Vatican and many royal and even personal archives. Old Medieval stuff may not be that interesting to everyone so if for example you want to see something from twentieth century political life, you can see and handle the entire archive of Eleanor Rathbone in the Reading Room in Liverpool and if you want some Welsh life the collection in Cardiff has numerous items online. Liverpool Central Library Rare Book Collection was one of the first to put all of its manuscripts on line and it closed for three years to do so. The collection in Oxford is one of the richest in Europe. There is a whole world out there hidden away. I live within easy drive or bus of several country homes and there is nothing I would recommend more than an In the Attic Day at say Speke Hall or Little Morton Hall. You get the entire place to yourself at Speke and two days of being shown hidden secrets including many old manuscripts. Believe me you won’t look at the families who owned them quite in the same way again. I can’t get up to the Attic but no problem, they brought the document down. There is a window which apparently shows evidence of slavery in connection to the Watts family in the eighteenth century and the curator was curious. She had never heard of this before and you won’t find it in any history or guide book. So, the loft is where the archives are so the loft and store were searched and lo and behold the evidence was found. Two sales of property from the colonies and a connection to that property coming from Africa and more documents emerged to confirm the property as three female slaves and two young male slaves. The property also included a small plantation. The family had owned slaves for a short time and then acted as agents for fifty years. It was a horrible secret but it explains James Watts family crests.

    The JC Ryland Library in Manchester has some of the earliest pieces of first and second century manuscript documents from the New Testament. There are third century Gnostic scripts as well and several very old early Celtic and Christian and Viking as well as Medieval items here as well. You can see them any day as it is open to the public but if you want to see a particular item you have to make an appointment. In our library at the University it is amazing what they have in the vaults and I can remember years ago asking for a seventeenth century history just to see it, being in a daze looking at it and surprisingly no gloves were needed. The Liberian noticed I looked worried, smiled and assured me it won’t fall apart.

    Our Egyptian Library and private collection at Liverpool, open to students three times a week and the public twice, holds many rare items from some of the very first expeditions (1902) and some rare Mesopotamian Cuneiform which are handled with gloves. On a tour we were handling some in the stores when an 18th Dynasty women’s wig came out, very well preserved and we got told to remove the gloves and wash our hands. We then got handed a light oil for our fingers. Why? The hair is real and we have to handle with moisture as it likes the oils in our fingers naturally as this helps the hair remain moist. So we could handle this lovely 3000 years old wig with our fingers. Hair needs oil to be alive and moist so gloves are a no no, but your hands must be clean. The wig is handled daily to keep it in good condition. Not a medieval manuscript but a good example of why you might not need gloves. Gloves harbour dust and so clean hands are best. I am guessing the rule is follow what the expert does and smile.

  3. M

    Thank you for answering my question Claire! I appreciate the information.

    1. C - Post Author

      That’s ok, thanks for asking it!

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Do you need to wear gloves when handling old manuscripts and books?