At a recent Pawn Stars shoot, before handling the item a seller had brought in, he insisted that I wear white gloves. Watch any clips of me handling books, and you will note the glaring lack of those cotton nightmares.
I will admit that there is some debate about how appropriate white gloves are. But I’m not being needlessly reckless, here: the vast majority of opinion in the past decade has fallen to the side of No Gloves. Why is that? Won’t your dirty hands soil the books?
Well, sure. Our skin is slightly acidic, that’s true, and acid hurts paper. But preservation librarians Cathleen Baker and Randy Silverman argue in their landmark 2005 article:
Compared with the destructive effects of air pollution, heat, light, poor storage conditions, repeated folding, and internal acidity, the chemical deterioration caused by paper’s contact with bare skin is imperceptible.
So. Touching the paper with bare hands isn’t too big of a deal. (Though obviously you shouldn’t be reading a first edition while eating a bag of potato chips.)
But shouldn’t you wear gloves, just in case?
The problem with gloves is simple. Have you ever tried to read a paperback with gloves on? It’s very difficult to bring to bear the tactile sensitivity and balance that your hands possess behind a layer of cloth. For this reason, handling a book with gloves greatly increases the likelihood of tearing a page or dropping the book.
In other words, if you feel the need to handle a book delicately, wearing gloves is only going to exacerbate the problem.
Now, yes: there are times when wearing gloves can be appropriate. We’re talking books with original artwork, metal bindings, books with coated photo paper. And, in some cases, there are tools such as page turners that may also be preferred over using one’s hands. But what appears to be over-caution in wearing gloves is a bit like over-correcting in grammar (“He gave the book to Dean and I”). Good intentions that create mistakes.
Now that I’ve debunked the White Gloves Problem (if you still don’t believe me, visit the British Library’s page about it), the question is how this became a debate in the first place. It appears that the practice of handling books with white gloves gained a lot of ground in the last 20 years, but that it actually extends back into the 19th century. Baker and Silverman argue that the practice of using gloves for handling originated from photographers trying to prevent fingerprints from ending up on their negatives. Now, that makes sense.
Sometimes in the world of collecting, a trend develops simply because of the opinions or proclivities of the masses. Remember, however, you don’t always have to follow the crowd. Do what’s best for you and best for your books.