When a TV report is broadcasted in which KBR employees are touching ancient manuscripts without gloves, we tend to get a lot of reactions in our mailbox. Understandably so, because for years you, and many other people, have heard that you have to wear white cotton gloves when you touch heritage objects. Such gloves are also often worn on popular TV shows when characters consult fragile materials.
You might be shocked to find out that this is actually no longer the case. Wearing gloves increases the likelihood of possible damage, as you have less feeling in your fingers. A lot of heritage institutions, including the Library of Congress and the British Library, therefore do not recommend to use gloves when consulting materials.
But does that mean that anyone can just touch heritage documents? Certainly not!
Clean hands are best
In most cases, it is best to touch a heritage document with clean-washed, dry hands. This way the risk of damage is as low as possible. But why is this exactly?
- Gloves limit fine motor skills. You don’t feel as well what you’re doing and therefore are more likely to accidentally tear a page.
- Gloves cause friction on the paper, which can damage the pigment or ink.
- A glove collects dirt, or substances that can damage the documents. Your gloves could transfer these to other documents.
Books and manuscripts are made for browsing. If you touch the book only to gently turn the page, and your hands are neatly washed, there is little chance of your fingertips doing any damage.
Of course, the best protection is not to touch the documents at all. For example, by only viewing the digitized version.
When do you need to wear gloves?
Sometimes wearing gloves is recommended. It is then important to weigh the advantages and disadvantages.
- Do you suffer from eczema or sweaty hands? Then clean gloves can certainly be a good solution.
- The chemicals in old photographs can react to contact with the skin. So don’t touch them with bare hands, as you could permanently damage them.
- When there are harmful substances in a book or book binding (lead, arsenic, mold …) you can wear plastic gloves to protect yourself.
- Coins may also be handled with gloves: they are much less fragile and porous than paper or parchment.
Recommended further reading:
- “Misperceptions about White Gloves,” International Preservation News 37, December 2005. https://www.ifla.org/files/assets/pac/ipn/ipnn37.pdf
- “No Love for White Gloves, or: the Cotton Menace,” Smithsonian Libraries Blog, 21 november 2019. https://blog.library.si.edu/blog/2019/11/21/no-love-for-white-gloves-or-the-cotton-menace
- “White Gloves or Not White Gloves”, Medieval Manuscripts Blog, 19 augustus 2011. https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2011/08/white-gloves-or-not-white-gloves.html
- “Using gloves with books and manuscripts,” British Library. https://www.bl.uk/help/using-gloves-with-books-and-manuscripts
Touching manuscripts is unfortunately not possible at the KBR museum, but you can look as long as you like.
Since 11 May 2021, a completely new selection of manuscripts and miniatures is on display, so now is the time to visit the museum.