Gloves or No Gloves? On the Proper Handling of Rare Books & Manuscripts

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The Spring 2015 issue of Portland State Magazine offers a cover story focusing on Texts of Time, the student-curated Library exhibit on a newly-acquired Medieval Book of Hours. We’ve heard questions from many readers, however, about the cover photograph, which shows a pair of bare hands holding the fifteenth-century manuscript. Some readers have wondered about proper handling of fragile materials and asked if it would be better to wear gloves.Photo of Book of Hours

We talked to Library Conservation Technician Carolee Harrison, who worked with the photographer on the photo shoot and whose hands are shown holding the book in the photographs. Carolee is well-known throughout the state for her knowledge of the care and repair of library materials. In her work, Carolee draws upon the recommendations of the Library of Congress:

“According to the Library of Congress, wearing gloves while handling antiquarian books may do more harm than good. Portland State University Library Special Collections follows their advice to handle most rare and valuable books with clean, dry hands.”

Specifically, the Library of Congress recommends the following: 

“Before handling any collection item, thoroughly wash and dry hands. Contrary to widespread belief, gloves are not necessarily recommended to handle rare or valuable books. Gloves (nitrile or vinyl) are always recommended if there is reason to suspect a health hazard (e.g., mold, arsenic). Clean gloves (nitrile, vinyl, or lint-free cotton) are also recommended when handling photograph albums/photographs or books with metal or ivory parts. Aside from those specific situations, it is generally preferable to handle your books with clean hands, washed with soap and thoroughly dried, rather than with gloves.”

Indeed, as conservators write in International Preservation News, the recommendation to use gloves is a dangerous and “pervasive myth” that may result in the tearing of pages. And gloves often carry far more dirt than clean hands. Please see “Misperceptions about White Gloves” in International Preservations News for more information.

We are pleased to learn of the Portland State community’s interest in rare book preservation! We welcome you to view the Book of Hours on display in the Library through mid-July.