How many of us have thought that white cotton gloves are a must for the safe handling of precious documents? What do you think when you see archival documents being handled with white gloves on television?
Well, until I became a Conservator at The National Archives, I hadn’t really questioned the need for them; when I saw the white gloves in the media I assumed that they indicated the document was being well treated and cared for.
But this isn’t necessarily the case. And from now on crews filming at The National Archives will have to follow the same rules for handling documents as those in our reading rooms – they will have to remove their white gloves!
Why, you ask? Well, it’s important we give out a consistent message that reflects best practice when handling original documents. It is confusing when we say one thing on site and another on TV. This also brings us in line with other large institutions with similar collections. If you are interested in the thinking behind the decision to ditch the gloves, read on…
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.
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.
In conclusion, I don’t mean to suggest that it is ok to remove gloves when handling any sort of historical artefact, but for some materials gloves have a potential to do more harm than good. For us it is very important to make sure everyone can be confident in the best way to handle documents which means our messages and recommendations must be clear. So as we update our training material and new filming takes place you’ll notice that the gloves will come off!