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
- "Gloves harm NT Books", Andrew Bush, Paper Conservation Adviser for the National Trust, February 2013.
- "Misperceptions about White Gloves", Dr. Cathleen A. Baker and Randy Silverman, International Preservation News, December 2005 issue. See https://www.betweenthecovers.com/articlesDetail.php?event_id=49