Rare Books and the White Glove Myth

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.



18 Comments Add yours

  1. Thank God! I’ve been telling people this for ages. White gloves = bollocks ( technical term). Also Miss R. We need you at bookfairs…dull otherwise.

    1. I’ve had to endure many incredulous “you clearly do not know what you’re talking about” looks upon advocating a No White Gloves Policy. It’s one of the universal experiences of all rare book dealers, don’t you think?

      As for the Boston fair, I would have loved to come but I’m sure Ashley and Abby provided excellent entertainment. I’ll almost certainly be in CA in February, though.

      1. It is pretty universal. I just love handing extremely nervous people copies of beautiful and rare books and watching them gradually get used to the fact that it isn’t going to fly to pieces or dissolve in their fingers…I think that’s the point that they begin to realize that they can be part of the book’s existence rather than viewing it from the other side of glass or from a distance…they’ve just done the book equivalent of walking up and talking to that person they have a crush on rather than just watching them.
        Boston was indeed entertaining, although your own bone dry sarcasm cannot be replaced by anything. It’s not a complete book fair experience until I’ve heard you mutter something damning very quietly out of the corner of your mouth.

        1. Jonathan, my friend, that was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. I now officially love you forever.

  2. John says:

    That’s funny rebecca. I think that it’s just common that when people have something they perceive to be of value, especially in an area that they known little about, they tend to treat it much more delicately than need be. I collect game worn hockey jerseys and how fragile some people think these things are, if they survived what the player/team did to them…they’re going to be ok! I’m out of my realm when it comes to rare books but as a lifelong ‘collector’ i always believe that if human beings aren’t enjoying it, is it really worth anything? Anyway, I always enjoy the posts and hope to come see your store next time in vegas. Enjoy the holiday!

    1. Yes, a lot of people are shocked to hear that a collector may actually read his first edition. You do have to be careful in some ways, but with books there are only a few basic rules of handling and beyond that you’re pretty well safe.

  3. Don says:

    I think it would just be common knowledge that a person who is an “expert” of any kind would know way better than me what was best. I mean, you’re a book expert from the world famous Bauman Books. I would think that you don’t wear gloves because you know it’s not necessary. I love these dweebs on Pawn Stars who always say, “That guy don’t know what he’s talking about” when referring to an expert who just told them their item is worthless. I always “lol”.

    1. If someone doesn’t say what you want to hear…well. It adds drama?

      But, actually, your reaction is how the seller also reacted when I told him why I don’t wear white gloves. He was perfectly fine with me handling it after I gave him the rundown.

  4. Michael says:

    I agree. A true collector is always careful with his/her books and the gloves get in the way. It is the feel of the book as much as it’s content that make the process so enjoyable. So protect your books, keep them away from food and drink and out of direct sunlight. But please never forget to experience the book for all that it can offer you–the magic of the written word and the art of the object itself.

    1. You’re right that the feel of the book greatly affects the experience. The texture of the cloth; the smoothness of a calf binding; the linen-like quality of a fine 18th century paper…

  5. Reblogged this on Bibliodeviancy and commented:
    A nice view on a personal bugbear:

  6. jb says:

    i think you should silly putty a picture from someone’s first edition on pawn stars

  7. Terry Kent says:

    Unfortunately the Baker and Silverman paper uses long out of date information by claiming fingerprints to be 99% to 99.5% water. The true ‘chemical’ content of latent fingerprints is not 1% but around 50 to 90% of the approximately 10 micrograms of deposit and contains a wide range of hundreds of chemicals some of which cause paper to darken. I would never suggest white cotton gloves but there are other types, and the use of page turners for very fragile books. Remember we want some of the documents to last not tens of years, but hopefully centuries, and we are only the current guardians of them. So should act more responsibly in assessing the issues professionally.
    Terry Kent, ex Head of UK Government Fingerprint Research

    1. Terry, thank you for this input. It adds nuance to the consensus.

      Yes, there are some other tools like page turners that can (and should) be used in certain situations. I’ve updated my post to reflect the existence of such options.

      However, your comment about lasting tens of years rather than centuries reminds me very much of Double Fold by Nicholson Baker. These books have already been handled for hundreds of years without gloves and, having handled thousands of them myself, I have seen that the results of handling with fingers is negligible for most books. I would be most concerned with items that would be touched over and over again as talismans, like the Declaration of Independence or Book of Kells. In such situations I would certainly recommend an intermediate tool (though, again, not gloves).

      All that said, academic and scholarly opinions have been formed carefully according to the observation of data over decades; until the British Library, Harvard’s Houghton, the LOC, and other leading institutions change their tune on this score, I will continue to encourage handling most books primarily with clean hands.

  8. Recently watched a video about La Bella Principessa tracing the origin of the vellum sheet back to a rare book in the Polish National Museum. And when they brought the 15th century document out to be examined they handled it without gloves. If books weren’t meant to be handled they would be digital images on a cell phone.

  9. James Hobbs says:

    I have just visited an exhibition of 100 contemporary artists’ sketchbooks at the Rabley Drawing Centre in Wiltshire, and we were asked to wear protective gloves to handle the books – the majority of these gloves were perhaps latex (?), and much finer than the cotton ones on offer. I found, for instance, I could use my iPhone with the gloves still on. Has (or could) improved glove “technology” answer/ed some of the issues faced, Rebecca? I’m currently working on a masters dissertation on how sketchbooks are collected and made accessible in UK archives and museums, and this is an interesting aspect.

    1. Thanks for this comment. Sketchbooks are a slightly different thing – think of how easy it is to smear pastels! They definitely fall under the category of exceptions.

      To your wider point, however: Finer gloves, as long as they are made of archival materials, are great. But until we can manage the same tactile care with such gloves as without (we’re far off from that), in most cases you’re better off with clean hands.

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