By: Andrew J. Patton
As the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts shares images and videos of its digitization teams working with manuscripts, we consistently receive questions about the use of white gloves. These are excellent questions because it is imperative to properly care for and handle valuable objects like manuscripts. We share a commitment to preserve NT manuscripts with the organizations that own them. Thus, the staff at CSNTM follow the protocols established by the institution whose manuscripts we are digitizing. In some cases, that requires Center staff to wear white cotton gloves, and in other cases it does not.
Since the popular perception of a museum or library conservator is a person wearing white gloves, let us explain why some archivists prefer to handle them with bare hands. In an article for International Preservation News, Cathleen A. Baker and Randy Silverman concluded that using gloves to handle manuscripts and other books is a recent phenomenon—possibly developing in the last twenty years. Many archival organizations have recognized that there are some disadvantages to wearing gloves while handling books. These include that gloves limit tactile perception, do not eliminate the chance of transferring dirt, ointment, and other chemicals to the pages, and make turning fragile or fragmentary pages more difficult.
Rather than wearing gloves, the American Institute for Conservation of Historical and Artistic Works instructs conservators to “handle books only with freshly washed hands.” Then they recognize that “wearing white cotton gloves for handling rare bindings is a good preventive measure, but turning fragile or brittle pages with gloves may cause damage and is not advised.” Thoroughly washing hands with lotion-free soap will remove most of the dirt, grease, and oils that may be left on pages. When CSNTM’s digitizers handle any manuscript—whether or not they are wearing gloves—they wash their hands and then periodically wash again as needed.
Links to Other Resources:
“Misperceptions About White Gloves” by Cathleen A. Baker and Randy Silverman in International Preservation News, No. 37 (Dec. 2005).
“The Use of White Cotton Gloves for Handling Collection Items” by Jane Pimlott, Preservation Coordinator at the British Library.
“Caring for Your Treasures,” American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.