The gloves are off

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.

Bulky gloves like these can make handling documents more difficult

Bulky gloves like these can make handling documents more difficult

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!


  1. Colin Moretti says:

    I have only been asked to wear gloves on one occasion but not to protect the documents, they were for my benefit; I had ordered some Chancery documents and they were *very* dusty indeed! The gloves were most welcome.


  2. Jill Ball (GeniAus) says:

    Thanks for this post, I appreciate being able to handle the documents at TNA with my bare hands.

    I’d love to hear what you have to say about the rubber gloves that one institution requies that we wear in Australia.

  3. Agnes E.M. Jonker says:

    Read this
    “Misperceptions about White Gloves” by Cathleen A. Baker and Randy Silverman, in: International Preservation News – A Newsletter of the IFLA Core Activity on Preservation and Conservation | No.37 December 2005 | pp.4-16 | IFLA PAC.
    (…) “This paper examines the effect of this well-meaning effort to protect our irreplaceable holdings from soiling in light of the potential for damage introduced by handicapping the handler. Routine hand washing is recommended as a more effective means of preventing the spread of dirt
    while improving the user’s haptic response to and tactile appreciation of the collections.”

  4. Rebecca Romney says:

    THANK YOU for this. People get really worked up about me supposedly damaging items because I don’t use white gloves, and it feels like an endless fight trying to change their perception.

    I appear on TV often and refuse to use gloves (though I would use them of course for appropriate materials as you say), so I wrote a blog post myself about it:

  5. Diane Foster says:

    I totally agree with the conservator at the TNA. As an archivist and lecturer specialising in preservation methods over nearly 30 years, I have been asked the question many times, “gloves on or off”. On most occasions it is, “go wash your hands and no gloves!”

    I have seen damage in action on fragile documents as a results of gloves on.

    It is also important to show researchers how to handle documents, registers etc., Flipping a page over from a bottom, right corner is out; whereas sliding a finger, then flat hand under the page from the top right to support turning over the leaf and carefully placing laying the page down is important. Again, the clean hands are a must.

    I must say though, that it does bother my on the said TV shows when an obvious fragile document or register is accessed, to see the finger or hand rubbing along the page, flowing the words.

    A swift but kindly instruction on handling the records(s) goes a long way to helping preserve the item.

  6. Catriona says:

    I agree when it comes to white gloves – cotton gloves are almost always a poor choice with objects of most materials/types, but nitrile gloves solve almost all of the problems above and prevent oils from (even well-washed) skin from reaching the objects. These can still make page turning harder but only marginally and I would still recommend them here in the museum for documents and other paper-based materials. It is too easy to forget to wash hands regularly if not handling dusty materials, and sweat builds up quite quickly.

    Nitrile gloves can also be washed pretty effectively for one sitting in the normal way you would wash hands.

    Do you use nitrile gloves at the NA at all?

  7. Frances Willmoth says:

    I have long shared the perception of possible hazards of using gloves, and am inclined to make a judgment in each case depending on the nature of the object and nature of the proposed handling. I wouldn’t usually offer gloves to a researcher who’s going to be turning pages. But, as I understand it, the fragility of photos can’t be stressed enough – and I wish someone could get that across to the “experts” on the Antiques Roadshow (last Sunday’s episode had a great example of expert’s finger applied firmly to middle of photo).

  8. Wendy Percival says:

    The thrill of handling old documents, not to mention the anticipation of a potential ‘exciting find’, is enough to get those palms sweating even if they have been washed moments before!

  9. Oliver Harris says:

    The ‘compromise’ solution I’ve often seen readers adopt (and I’ve done it myself) in repositories where white gloves are mandatory is to leave one’s right (or writing) hand ungloved for note-taking, and one’s left hand gloved for page-turning. But, of course, handling the documents with a single hand, which is not one’s natural dominant hand, and to have it further encumbered by a glove, makes one impossibly clumsy!

  10. eddy evans says:

    The so called ‘experts’ on Antique’s Roadshow really should know better.
    It drives me mad each time I see them mis-handle a beautiful document.
    A few weeks back, one of them was basically flicking the pages of a (fragile) album of original water colour paintings of butterflies, which was about 150 years old.
    Also, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Gary Lineker LICK HIS FINGER when going through a stack of original documents from 1838. YUCK !!

    1. Myfanwy Denman-Rees says:

      Gary Lineker is now an Antiques Roadshow expert?

  11. John Hartley says:

    Apologies for late addition – Ironic isn’t it that the oils of (clean) hands benefit leather bindings of books and bare fingers help to turn pages safely – yet so many “experts” would have us behave otherwise.

    I have watched as a “guide” at a stately home in Eastern England (no names ….) turned the pages of one of the magnificent Gould Birds volumes casually, tearing one of the nearly priceless plates in the process – no gloves, no care.

  12. Hannah Clare says:

    Thanks to every one for all the really interesting comments!

    In answer to the questions surrounding other types of gloves; we did consider some form of rubber gloves but quickly concluded that they also pose some drawbacks and risks:

    – They do still dull your sensitivity.
    – Some of them contain powders on the inside to try to make wearing them a bit more comfortable and easier to put on and they can deposit this talc onto documents when you take them off.
    – Nitrile gloves don’t contain a powder but they are uncomfortable to wear over long periods and make hands very sweaty. They aren’t really appropriate either as we wouldn’t be using them to their full potential; they are designed to protect the wearers skin when handling solvents.
    – People tend to take rubbery gloves off as often as possible because of the discomfort and there is a risk that the documents might then be damaged by touching with much sweatier hands.
    – Asking readers to wash their gloves as they would their hands presents too much of a risk that other moisture might be introduced by failing to dry the gloves properly or by getting water inside.

    In addition to these risks disposable gloves like this are expensive. The National Archives can receive over 400 visitors in a day who will access original documents, they might need more than one pair each and we would have to throw them all away. They are not recyclable on such a large scale and without being very creative! We wouldn’t be able to justify this cost (financially and environmentally) without there being a clear benefit in a reduction of risks to the documents, we feel that clean dry hands are the best option.

  13. Vnce DeBono says:

    Strange. The dirty gloves are not good for paper because they carry the skin’s oils …. but necessary for photographs. Mmmm inconsistent. If gloves desensitize fingers that have to handle brittle paper, then another way needs to be found that will protect the documents….

  14. David Matthew says:


    I am dismayed at this decision, I have raised this issue before with senior staff over not being allowed gloves. Perhaps you have not had to handle some very dirty Treasury (and other) documents, along with ‘red’ leather volume covers and as the washing areas are beyond the barriers you get all of this dirt on you and anything you touch and is unhygienic. It seems that TNA are taking this decision on grounds of dogma and economics and without consultation with the researchers!. I have to say that 400 researchers do not and would not request gloves each day, perhaps TNA should check the figures before making this suggestion on which there is (in my view) no factual basis that it is happening.

  15. Bobbie says:

    It’s all about insensitive handling of archive that matters whether wearing gloves or not. For example, the introducing of a delicate card or paper item into a plastic acid free preserving sleeve. If an old postcard is shoved into available opening before ‘opening’ is ascertained and ‘opened’ prior to ‘shoving in’ card and paper artefacts can be scuffed or photo postcards have corners further rounded or corner-paper-particles slithered off.

  16. Catriona says:

    I agree that a mild level of user discomfort is a problem with nitrile gloves but that is a trade off that I am happy to make given the benefits to objects. I also find that if we get used to them after a while. Our visitors either wear them or they don’t handle objects, for the most part. Nitrile gloves also protect visitors from any nasties on the objects as well – for instance medical objects, or arsenic present in many natural history collections. We rarely wash gloves between objects, and have drying procedures for when we do.

    Our gloves aren’t tremendously expensive as we tend to buy direct from medical suppliers however I certainly take your point about cost in your case – 400 visitors per day is a large volume, and if there is no charge for the service then I can see how this is unsustainable.

    Thanks for replying!

  17. Hannah Clare says:

    I must just say that this is not a new decision; we have discouraged the use of gloves for a long time now because of the risks they present to the documents. Nothing has changed in the reading rooms at The National Archives, the only change is that those who film our original documents will not be wearing gloves from now on.

    It is the role of The National Archives to provide the best protection for the documents in order to preserve them, whilst still allowing our information to be accessed, and our policy of no gloves supports that.

    Preserving a continually accessed collection is complicated and must be based on the ongoing evaluation of the risks. We would not ignore effects, which were the result of handling original documents, experienced by a reader or materials that present a different set of risks; we would consider the use of gloves.

    However, on the whole, for the preservation of an archival collection, the best course of action is to handle documents with clean dry hands.

  18. David Matthew says:

    The issue of gloves is not whether gloves should be used ad infinitem (which they shouldn’t be) but that researchers are not refused gloves as I myself have been on several occasions and I have had to resort to seeking out the Duty Manager to allow me a pair of gloves. Are you saying that gloves will be supplied on request for researchers?, I have no issue over reusing the gloves, but the 400 gloves per day scenario is not I suggest supported by facts.

    The last time the policy had been changed half of the staff seemed to be operating one policy and the other half another policy because it was unclear.

    1. Hannah Clare says:


      Where they are not necessary for the safe handling of original documents it’s appropriate that gloves are discouraged. However, in individual cases we would consider the circumstances as a whole before making a decision.

      When I referred to 400+ gloves per day it was in response to a query on the introduction of rubber gloves for use by all readers. This is the number of visitors that are frequently received at The National Archives based on our most recent figures.

      The purpose of this announcement and having TV production follow reading room practices is intended to improve clarity for everyone.

  19. Marilyn Livingstone says:

    I am delighted with this common sense article. The advent of glove use in archived from the mid 1990s filled me with dismay. Careful handling with clean hands does much less damage than clumsy gloved ones. This is particularly true when using more fragile parchment and paper. I have seen the already fragile tops of account rolls, for example, damaged by those using gloves and I have always resisted using them whenever possible. Now if we can only persuade all TV productions to follow suit.

  20. Matthew Cains says:

    In terms of public perception the wearing of white cotton gloves at least clearly signifies that the object is being treated with care and respect, nitrile examination gloves are clearly superior in practice though. If an object is so fragile that cotton glove use is a threat, then it should clearly be withdrawn from use and conserved.

  21. Joseph Szymborski says:

    I know little to nothing about this field, but from working in a laboratory setting, wouldn’t latex/nitrile/polyethylene gloves address both the oily hand and sensitivity issues in one go?

  22. David Matthew says:

    The state of documents of modern vintage (as shown at the top of this article, how may departmental staff use them before they reach TNA?, not many I suggest) should not require gloves but a number of the 18th century documents (legal records and Treasury) are filthy, because of where they have been kept and may never have been opened in a 100 years. It is alright saying you can wash your hands but you have to use your reader’s ticket to get through the barrier to get to the washroom and then use the same ticket again to get back in. It was interesting to see a researcher (on twitter) having gloves to look at Chancery records, as discussed at this month’s User Forum researchers can ask for gloves but there is still opposition to granting such requests, somewhat galling when TNA staff have them for moving documents and I wouldn’t want them stop having them just an equal playing field. We are told we need gloves to look at photographs but what if the catalogue doesn’t say there are photographs in them?.

  23. Mark Purcell says:

    Some of the feedback above illustrates really well why conservators, librarians and archvists get so very frustrated with the great white glove debate. Despite clear guidance from TNA conservators (which is completely in agreement with guidance issued by the British Library, the National Trust and loads of other bodies, and which is backed by published research) there are still folk who reckon they know best. Well done to TNA for making TV presenters set a good example, and long may it continue. Down with the white gloves (unless they’re to protect readers from the documents, in which case people can ask).

  24. deborah says:

    Is Shakespeare’s will held at Kew ? I realise it’s available to read online and of course I have. I also appreciate it’s probably too fragile to view in person, with or without gloves, but the question is still valid. Can anyone tell me where it is please ? AND what is it’s provenance ? This information does not seem to be available to the public. I can only glean snippets that a COPY was discovered in 1738 by Rev Joseph Greene who didn’t tell anyone where he had ‘found’ it in Stratford before he then promptly mislaid it. Shame as his brother Richard Greene had one of the earliest museums in England at Lichfield and was desperate to aquire anything Shakespeare related, plus their cousin Samuel Johnson wanted to see it. This then led to the will being ‘re-discovered’ by no one knows who, or where when David Garrett (actor and former pupil of Johnson’s) came to Stratford to promote a pageant, luckily. A bit of a mystery all round then. Anyone know the eventual finders name and where it was eventually found in the 18thc ? I’d love to know it’s true provenance.

  25. […] 2013 a new policy at The National Archives saw film and TV crews banned from using gloves when handling materials from the […]

  26. Terry Kent says:

    Unfortunately the British Library recommendation is based on a paper that is about 30 years out of date which states that ‘sweat is 99.0 to 99.5% water. Analyses of latent fingermark deposits have shown the wide range and amounts of fatty acids, amino acids, chloride, urea and other, as yet not fully identified, chemicals present. Typical latent fingermark deposits contain around 10 micrograms of this mixture, the water content may be as little as 10 to 20% in some fingermarks and is never near 99%.
    Of course there are many other thin synthetic alternatives to cotton gloves, those of us in crime investigation changed our procedures many years ago and perhaps conservators and readers should catch up. Perhaps also one should consider re introduction of the ‘old fashioned’ page turner to avoid edge damage. Properly used it would probably be less damaging and more effective than fingers!

  27. […] From my experience cataloguing medieval manuscripts as part of my Masters degree I already knew wearing white gloves (unless you’re working with photographs or need to protect yourself from dirt) was a useless […]

  28. Arlen says:

    I can accept the points herein, but why should a researcher/telehistorian then apply a finger and fingernail against the paper to guide us through the text that we cannot readily read in a BBC production?

  29. […] of the source. It is also paramount to have clean, dry hands. Above all, as institutions like the National Archives and the British Library state, care and common sense are the most useful […]

  30. Mustrum says:

    I was once a master machinist tool and die maker. in that capacity, it was well known that some people are what in the trade we called a “rusty”. They can touch a freshly machined part and in a short time their finger print in rust will appear on a part even one that has been lightly oiled and wiped clean.

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