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Saturday 12 November 2022

White gloves are not a sign of good archival/library handling practice

Yesterday I engaged on a certain social media site which shall be nameless with somebody expressing horror at another person posting photos of an event he had been to involving manuscripts and, o horrors, they were handling them without white gloves. Which is absolutely right and proper, and considered the best practice across a broad swathe of libraries, archives, and manuscript collections.

Indeed, as this person went so far as to adduce the British Library as a place where one was obliged to glove up, I posted the BL's own guidelines on the subject:

Essentially, we recommend that it is preferable to handle manuscripts with clean dry hands. Wearing cotton gloves to hold or turn the pages of a book or manuscript actually reduces manual dexterity, and increases the likelihood of causing damage. Gloves also have a tendency to transfer dirt to the object being consulted, and to dislodge pigments or inks from the surface of pages.

During my own years working in research libraries as an archivist, and doing research in a range of institutions holding research materials in three continents, I can recall only one in which I was presented with a pair of - grubby, ill-fitting - white cotton gloves. While I was very grateful to have access to the correspondence between a significant cultural figure of the early twentieth century and their common-law spouse, held at a certain US educational establishment I shall not name, I had considerable qualms about the general conditions of its preservation.

I was handed a large flat box, which did not appear to be of acid-free material, containing shifting about it, loose, correspondence still in envelopes, unsorted, unfiled: rather than - as one might have hoped, removed from envelopes, flattened, attached to containing envelopes with non-corrosive clips, filed in chronological order in acid free files... It is also very difficult to extract letters in this condition while wearing manky cotton gloves. I am not saying that the situation was in the wider view fortunate, but the invigilation was sufficiently lax that I was able to take off the gloves without adverse notice, and thus removed the letters without damaging them.

The media, however, loves white gloves when showing people handling archives, manuscripts and rare volumes. I fear that this is a form of 'virtue-signalling', given some of my experiences involving media people and these precious materials (okay, the production company that wanted us to send some of a  archive over to their studio for them to film - without the kinds of pre-arrangement for insurance, supervision conditions, etc that might render such a request acceptable - was making a particularly unusual demand). White gloves demonstrate that they care: even if clean hands would be better.

There are some specific instances, as the BL guidelines indicate, when gloves are appropriate. The gloves, however, should be for preference nitrile, not cotton.