Artifact and Rare Book Handling: To Glove or Not to Glove?

I’m Matt Anderson.
I work with some of the 250,000 different 3-dimensional objects in the
Society’s collection and consequently one of my most important tools is
my pair of white cotton gloves. I wear gloves for a couple of
different reasons but the primary reason is because no
matter how much I wash my hands or how clean I try to keep them,
there’s always going to be a fine layer of dirt and oil on there
and I don’t want those materials to transfer onto the objects.
So by putting on the gloves, I protect the pieces as I handle them.
An example of one of the 3-dimensional objects in our collection is
this Civil War era surgeon’s kit and if you look inside the kit, you
see a variety of different materials and different surfaces. For example,
this bone saw here has a wooden handle and a shiny medal blade
and you can imagine if I didn’t have the gloves, I would be leaving
fingerprints all over the blade and then it would be difficult
to go back and clean it up again for display so the gloves to help
protect that sort of thing. The same situation here with the forceps.
Shiny medal that again would show fingerprints very quickly.
This sword belonged to Henry Lester, who is the Commander of the 3rd
Minnesota during the Civil War. And again, this is another example
of an object many polished metal surfaces that would readily show
fingerprints if I would have handled it without the gloves.
Our Conservation Department puts a lot of time and effort into
cleaning up these objects so we want to preserve that cleanliness
and that nice clean finish as long as possible. Now there are
some types of objects with which I wouldn’t wear gloves as I handle them.
A good example is this glass milk bottle. The glass is a very slippery
surface and when I put the gloves on obviously my grip is even looser so
I’d rather have fingerprints on the bottle than have a broken bottle for
dropping it. I also tend to not use gloves when I’m handling very small
or delicate objects, little things like jewelry or maybe pocket watches,
which have a lot of small pieces and require a greater deal of dexterity.
There’s one other advantage to wearing white cotton gloves that is really
more of a mental advantage. When I slip them on it puts me into a
different mindset. I realize that I am dealing with historic objects
here, things that are very fragile and irreplaceable in many cases
so when I have the gloves on, it’s a reminder that I need to slow
down, handle things with care and move it at a cautious pace. My name is Pat Coleman. I’m the
Acquisitions Librarian here at the Minnesota Historical Society
and I am in charge of the book collection and the rare book
collection. And just two weeks a go I was giving a little tour of
the library and I pulled this book out and I passed it around and I
asked everybody about the oldest book that they had ever held in
their hands had ben, and pointed out that this book was published
in 1492. And the particular person who had their hand on the book
at that time set the book down quite fast and said to me in
an accusatory tone, “How is my handling this and bare hands not
wrecking this book?” And I could just tell that’s one of the
questions that people are concerned about all the time is with a book,
especially an older book or a rare book or an expensive book, how are
your hands not ruining the book? Well, this book has held up pretty
well for a few hundred years and the way that we treat books here
and keep them in the best particular, the best shape possible is that we
recommend that people instead of wearing gloves, just treat the book
with clean hands. So the thought behind this is that books were made
to have their pages turn and the papers are pretty fragile. And what
we worry about with gloves is that if you’ve got gloves on, you’re
actually quite a bit clumsier than you are with bare hands and the
problem with that is that pages as I said, are fragile, and it’s
hard to grab the very next page. This is a book which is popularly
known as the Bodmer atlas and one of the rarest books in our collection.
And because it’s rare, because it’s an expensive book and irreplaceable,
for many years we would ask patrons to look at this with gloves on their hand.
And I won’t do it but you can see a little bit of the result of this.
There’s a tear here, there’s a bent page here, there’s a corner missing
here and I’m pretty sure that the reason that that happened is because
somebody with gloves was just trying to get a hold of the page and turn
the page. And you can see that it’s much easier to do if you’re doing
this with bare hands. Now that’s just for books with pages that
need to be turned when there’s individual items like a map for
example or another example would be our photograph collection.
You don’t have to turn pages then it is kind of easier and better
for the object if we use glove on those things. So it’s really
just the turning of the pages that we’re concern about and we
think that we’ve come up with the best compromise position on
that so thank you very much.

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