The gloves are off
In handling most archival documents gloves are more of a hindrance than a help and they can actually pose a threat. The main reasoning behind wearing gloves was to protect document surfaces from marks made by oily or sweaty hands. In fact, if you clean and dry your hands before handling archival documents this risk is significantly reduced. Handling archival documents with gloves puts them at greater risk of damage for a number of reasons:
Gloves can dull your senses. Your bare fingertips are very sensitive. They tell you exactly how fragile the paper or brittle the parchment of the document you are handling is. This means that you might damage the document by inadvertently handling it more roughly than you ought to.
Gloves can make you clumsy. Your hands are very dextrous but cotton gloves don’t always fit very well and can be quite thick, which means they have a potential to make picking up documents or separating pages more difficult. There is a greater potential for damage if you have to fumble with document corners or edges or if you have to grip harder than normal because of ill-fitting gloves.
Gloves can catch on fragile or previously damaged edges. This is especially true if the paper is brittle. If they do catch, this can cause tears or flaking of the pages.
Gloves get dirty. It is very easy to wash your hands if you find you have handled a particularly dusty or dirty document so that you don’t transfer the dirt to the next document you handle, but it is much more labour-intensive to have a fresh clean pair of gloves at the ready.
The white gloves have become almost a fetish for library/archives visitors, and it annoys me a lot. It gives the appearance of safety, without actually protecting the collection in MOST instances. Archival safety theatre! Clean hands are a lot safer for MOST paper-based objects than gloves. At the very least, I’d like to see those stupid white cotton gloves replaced with nitrile ones – Stanford has done just that, it seems, according to their Reading Room Policies.
SEE ALSO: “Misperceptions about White Gloves”, an article from this issue (in PDF) of International Preservation News that really examines the history and current use of the dreaded white glove in archives and libraries. (Link goes to PDF of entire issue, the article is the first in that issue)