To Glove or not to Glove?

By The History Detectives Team
23 July 2007
Category: Viewer Mailbag

As so called "laymen" or non-experts, we are always told not to touch or handle old items with our bare hands because the oils on our hands will damage the items, yet I see you people doing it all the time. Isn't that just as bad as us handling these items? 
James Luke, South Dakota

Dear James,

You've raised a fascinating question. The policies about gloves and touching don't just differ from one place to another but, more importantly, from one kind of object to another. There's also an issue of relatively occasional use versus mass touching over time that may cause damage, combined with a sense that 'experts' know how to be careful whereas 'laypeople' don't necessarily know how to be careful with irreplaceable objects. Only one rule is firm: Everyone should wear gloves when handling photographs and film, old or new. You're right about damage from the oil on human hands. Letters and books are somewhat more tenuous. 'The public' is often asked to wear gloves and some libraries ask this of everyone, if only to encourage them to be self-conscious about extra care. However, many libraries and archives don't ask this, in part because a reader relies on the sensitivity of fingertips to tell if the paper is fragile in certain places, but that's again relying on some 'expert' knowledge and experience. In general, the more 'significant' the document the more care is taken. (The National Archives in Washington DC insisted that a head librarian turn the pages of a deposition about the Lincoln assassination, using gloves and a scalpel. In fact, this was a risky proposition, given that mid-19th century paper is very frail!) As far as other objects, it's always up to the archive or library, just like some museums encourage people to touch and even climb on sculpture while others won't let you near it. The custodians want to protect the objects in their care, even as they encourage access, so the terms will always vary.

Thanks for asking.

Best, Gwen Wright 

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