We rare book collectors have all seen it: a dealer, librarian, or other expert dons a spotless pair of white gloves before laying a single finger on some priceless volume. The practice is especially common in special collections libraries, where white gloves are considered an integral part of protecting antiquarian books. Should collectors follow suit and use the gloves for handling antiquarian books in their personal libraries?
Why the White Gloves?
Dirt and oils are the enemies of rare books; they cause discoloration and accelerate deterioration. This second factor is a significant concern, especially when dealing with extremely delicate documents. Obviously our hands can transmit both; we touch countless objects throughout our day, and our bodies naturally secrete oils and other substances.
The purpose of wearing white cotton gloves is to provide a safe, soft barrier between your dirty, oily hands and the rare book youre using. The white fabric contains no dyes that could stain the book, and they show dirt easily, so you know when its time for a new pair. Meanwhile cotton is a natural fabric that wont leach any harmful materials onto your book.
Why NOT White Gloves?
Sure, you love the feeling of sliding into gloves to handle an illuminated manuscript or peruse a priceless first edition. But using those gloves can actually do more harm than good. Usually a good old fashioned hand washing is all you needour hands certainly have oils on them, but these are removed with soap and dont replenish themselves very quickly. Putting on gloves actually increases the temperature of your hands, thereby increasing sweat production. Cotton doesnt provide a sufficient barrier to keep this oil from passing through the glove and onto the page youre touching.
And furthermore, your gloves can get dirty just like your hands cannot all dirt is visible, after all! Cotton is notoriously easy to soil. It easily picks up the residue from cleaning agents and skin care products, along with dust, grime, and other foreign particles. Merely touching your own skin while wearing the gloves is enough to contaminate them with the same oils youre trying to keep away from your books surface.
Perhaps the most compelling argument against wearing gloves is that wearing gloves decreases your ability to actually feel the book youre handling. Certainly collecting and exploring rare books is just as much a tactile experience as it is a visual one, but more importantly your sense of touch can keep you from damaging a book. When we impair our sense of touch, we increase our risk of accidentally ripping a page or causing other damage.
Whats your take on giving rare books the white glove treatment? Do you use them in your personal library? Should special collections libraries continue the practice to ensure at least some level of protection from patrons dirty fingers?