The White Glove Myth

Nathan Raab is a contributor to Here is his most recent contribution, the original of which can be found here.

“Don’t you need white gloves to handle that document?” a client asked recently when he visited our office.  These vaunted protectors of our historical legacy, pieces of cloth that stand between our filthy hands and many American treasures, are ingrained in the mind as a required wear during a visit to an archive. Many reporters file stories replete with white glove imagery.  It surfaces in movies and books.  And this past week, sitting on my couch watching one of the many reality shows featuring celebrities, I was moved to write this.  The scene took place in an institution, where a trained archivist carefully removed a centuries-old historical document from its resting place and gently handed it to the celebrity to examine. They both wore the requisite white gloves.  Has this  absurdity made its way that comfortably to the main stream?

Let’s begin with the main point: you do not need to wear white gloves to handle historical documents.  If your hands are so dirty that they require gloves, go wash them.  This will get rid of the excess oils on your hands that are the villain in this scenario.  If your hands are wet, dry them. But it’s not only that you do not need white gloves when handling old documents or book.  You should not wear them.  The problem with the white glove myth is that it fights against the very thing it is supposed to ensure – the safety of the historical treasure.  Would you find it easier to read a book wearing white cloth gloves?  It removes any dexterity required when handling older paper.  You are more likely to rip the document or bend it while wearing gloves of any sort. Moreover, white gloves are more likely to sop up sweat and other oils that can then be transferred to the document.  And the small fibers can be left behind and filed away with the document. What started out as a form of show and presentation has moved into the collective consciousness as a required precaution when handling our national treasures.  And it is counterproductive.  

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