The white-gloved historian is a staple of popular culture. After all, old things are delicate! You can’t touch them with your dirty, dirty, fingers. Who knows what kinds of oils or flakes of skin could be there to cause untold damages, either immediately or years down the line. Surely, a pair of gloves is the best line of defense.
Well, not quite. The dangers of marking a document with sweaty hands can be removed almost entirely with one simple act: Washing and drying your hands beforehand.
Paper is actually quite resilient. It’s pressed, treated, and bleached, and unless it was made with acidic additives (like newspapers or other cheaply printed paper), it’ll keep for much longer than you might think. Here in our collection, we have papers and letters written more than 150 years ago with not much more than some discoloration to show for it.
As for the gloves? Well, as it turns out, gloves can be far more of a hinderance than they are an asset.
For one, the tips of your fingers are incredibly sensitive instruments. Though often under-appreciated when compared to vision or hearing, our sense of touch, especially in our fingertips, is extremely precise. Differences in texture down to the nano-scale are “visible” to your fingers. A piece of cotton, even only a few threads thick, can dull that sense, keeping you from feeling fine details like how delicate or brittle a document is.
In addition, gloves make you clumsy. Fingers and hands are very dextrous, but even a well-fitted pair of gloves has the potential to make picking up or separating documents difficult. If you’re fumbling to pick up the edges or corners of a paper, damage by tearing or folding is all the more likely if you have to grip harder thanks to a pair of gloves. On top of that, the fabric of gloves can get caught on an already damaged or brittle document, flaking or tearing it further.
Lastly, gloves get dirty, and unlike hands, will often stay that way. A quick wash with soap and water is enough to clean your hands, but over even a short amount of time, a glove can pick up dirt, dust, and oils that don’t come out of the cotton as easily as they come off your skin.
So leave the gloves off! Or, at least as often as you can. Keep them on if you’re working with cellulose film, that stuff gets everywhere.
By Zebediah Howel