The use of gloves in archives is not a centuries-old tradition. In their article “Misperceptions About White Gloves” (International Preservation News, December 2005), Cathleen A. Baker and Randy Silverman report that using white gloves with documents didn’t become popular until the 1990s. Baker and Silverman propose that it came about as the number of archival material catalogs grew. Others, such as Grace Pritchard-Woods, believe that it has grown from the popularity of history. “It could also be said that gloves contribute toward our experience of the past by building a sense of anticipation and occasion when we view historical material,” she proposes.I not sure I agree with either assessment of the reasons for white gloves. Having worked in libraries for many, many years, I would propose a third reason: ownership. Archives come to believe that the "own" the old documents and making patrons wear white gloves increases the sense of ownership and makes the patrons feel they are intruders in the world of the archive. Some archival procedures such as closed stacks are necessary when the materials being stored are priceless and irreplaceable. Sensible security procedures are also necessary and has been demonstrated when materials have been stolen or vandalized.
In writing this, I am in no way suggesting that the protective instincts of the archivists were not necessary, it is just that sometimes good intentions are not enough. It is also important to examine the realistic impact of any such decision, rather that expediency.
The use of white gloves is one of those practices that, once they are begun, take on a life of their own. In another blog post, from Hannah Claire, Conservator at the National Archives in the U.K. is entitled "The gloves are off." She gives a number of reasons why the white gloves are no longer in vogue:
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:It seems that none of these problems occurred to the archivists who started the tradition of using white gloves. However, there are some exceptions as pointed out by the Conservator:
- 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.
Despite this there are some materials with which you do still have to use gloves. In an archival collection this will most commonly apply to photographic materials. This is because oils and sweats from the skin can easily damage a surface that contains metals, such as black and white photographs.Now, sometimes we find ourselves in the same situation as the archivists when we are trying to "protect" our own documents and photographs. I have had the unfortunate problem of extracting hundreds (thousands) of photos from old albums. Some of the technology used in the "mountless" type of photo albums ends up destroying the photo. I have seen some really poor methods of attempts at preservation. I still like the adage, Primum non nocere, "first, do no harm." From what I have seen of efforts to "protect" documents and photos, sometimes even the best practices at the time, turn out to be unacceptable at best and sometimes a disaster.