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Should You Ditch the White Gloves for Handling Rare Books?

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.

Handling Rare Books with White Gloves

The purpose of wearing white cotton gloves is to provide a safe, soft barrier between your dirty, oily hands and the rare book you’re using. The white fabric contains no dyes that could stain the book, and they show dirt easily, so you know when it’s time for a new pair. Meanwhile cotton is a natural fabric that won’t 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 need—our hands certainly have oils on them, but these are removed with soap and don’t replenish themselves very quickly. Putting on gloves actually increases the temperature of your hands, thereby increasing sweat production. Cotton doesn’t provide a sufficient barrier to keep this oil from passing through the glove and onto the page you’re touching.

And furthermore, your gloves can get dirty just like your hands can—not 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 you’re trying to keep away from your book’s surface.

Perhaps the most compelling argument against wearing gloves is that wearing gloves decreases your ability to actually feel the book you’re 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.

What’s 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?
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Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.


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