In his latest newsletter, Dick Eastman directs our attention to a righteous smackdown of the cherished notion that white cotton gloves are de rigueur when handling old books and documents. Said smackdown (available in .pdf form at the link) actually dates back to 2005, demonstrating that this skepticism about gloved fingers has been around a while.
While I’ve heard the naysaying about white gloves, I admit I hadn’t read this exhaustive examination of the topic. And it is exhaustive! Fortunately for the time-pressed, the end of the article includes a tight summary of the key points:
• Routine handling does not seem to cause chemical damage to paper, even in heavily used books and documents.
• Cotton gloves do not present a foolproof guarantee against dirt and perspiration.
• They may, indeed, increase the chance of physical damage to the materials.
• It might make more sense to just ask everyone to wash their hands thoroughly before researching.
• All of the above does NOT apply to negatives or photographs, which carry their own special requirements.
So there’s the technical take on things. But what about the real-world etiquette for non-conservator types (like yours truly) who just want to make sure they don’t get their special-collections room access revoked?
Obviously you have to play by the rules you find on the playing field. If the staff insists upon the gloves, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to get into a fight with them about it, and that goes double if you’ve driven or flown to the archive from far away, and your time is limited.
That being said, if I get into one of those situations where using the gloves makes it difficult to turn a page without tearing it, I guess I feel pretty good now about slipping them off on the sly. Just for a couple of seconds. Don’t tell on me, OK?