People often associate glove-wearing with the handling of old or rare book and paper materials. Film and TV characterizations, such as Mr. Bean’s memorable “The Library,” may have perpetuated the idea that gloves must be worn. As a result, there are always a few eyebrows raised when people notice Ransom Center staff handling fragile bindings and papers in our collections with bare hands—“Where are the cotton gloves?” people ask in confusion.
The conservator’s explanation in support of bare hands is that they afford much greater manual dexterity. Ungloved hands allow a firmer grip so that an item doesn’t accidentally slip out of your hands when moving it. It’s also easier to handle and assess the condition of collection materials without an extra layer between your hands, whereas gloves can catch onto things like brittle paper or fragile leather and cause tears without you feeling it happen.
Also, gloves may not always be cleaner than bare hands! Especially with cotton gloves, it’s easy for the fabric to pick up dirt or loose bits from one item and transfer them to another you might be handling. To avoid transferring dirt, remember to wash and dry your hands frequently when handling materials for long periods of time, especially after dealing with something particularly grimy.
There are, of course, cases where gloves are necessary. At the Center, we do ask for people to wear gloves when handling photographs and metal objects, as these materials can be highly sensitive to perspiration or skin oils. Otherwise, it is enough to have washed hands before handling collection materials, avoiding the use of lotions or creams.