There are many popular shows, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “History Detective,” which sometimes give viewers a sneak peek into archives. The question I most commonly hear is “Why are they not using white gloves when they are handling such old books?” There are many reasons for and against wearing gloves while handling historic materials, and requirements vary among institutions. Here at the Westminster Schools Archives, you will be required to wear gloves while handling photographs, negatives, metallic objects (such as trophies), leather-bound books, textiles, and audiovisual/digital materials. You will not be required to wear gloves while handling paper or books with regular bindings, such as most of the yearbooks.
When you use gloves while handling paper, it’s sometimes difficult to separate a single sheet, and this often causes more damage to the paper itself than just handling the paper with clean hands. It’s better to wash your hands with plain soap before handling materials (and especially if you have just eaten fried chicken in the cafeteria and then want to come to the archives to do some research). Hand sanitizer is not an acceptable option, because it does not remove dirt or oil, and the residue of the sanitizer can sometimes get on the materials themselves.
Most archives only require researchers to wear gloves while handling photographs or negatives, because the oil on skin (even clean hands) can adhere to the surface of the photograph or negative. You may also be asked to use gloves if you are handling leather, metallic objects, wood, glass, and textiles, or leather books that are starting to deteriorate. If you have ever handled an older leather-bound book you may have seen red rot up close, and you do not want to get this residue on your hands or clothes. This is an advanced stage of deterioration, which you can see in detail here.
Other reasons that archivists may wear gloves while handling collections is actually to protect the archivist—either from dry/ cracking skin, paper cuts, or for more substantial reasons, such as handling moldy materials. News articles highlight the problems archivists had trying to recover and salvage records after natural disasters. In these, you will see pictures of archivists wearing both gloves and masks:
- Photos of Damage in Louisiana from Hurricane Katrina
- Hurricane Sandy Highlights the Problems of Digital Archives
For more information:
- Handy Flowchart (Derangement and Description)
- Misperceptions about White Gloves (International Preservation News, No. 37, December 2005)
- Policy on Use of White Gloves (United Kingdom National Archives)
Note: This post is in honor of ALA’s Preservation Week, April 21-27, 2013. There are free webinars this week as well as other events. Webinars include the topics “The Preservation of Family Photographs” (April 23), “Personal Digital Archiving” (April 24), and “Archival 101: Dealing with Suppliers of Archival Products” (April 25). Previous webinars have also been recorded and are currently accessible. A Preservation Toolkit, complete with facts on why we need preservation awareness as well as tips on keeping your collection safe and stable, is also available for free on the ALA website.
Update (10 October 2013): The National Archives (UK) just posted an article about the use of gloves in Archives.