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Gloves or no gloves? The archivist's dilemma

I would like to thank letter writer Charles Herr for exhibiting concern about the treatment of historic items within the community ("Laying bare hands on historic bible is an archival sin," April 4). Like him, I believe that the greatest care should be used when handling objects that are important to our shared history. His observation, "Isn't it standard archival practice to use gloves when handling documentary artifacts?" is a good one and shared by many. Unfortunately, there are few solid rules by which archivists and curators can live regarding the use of gloved hands when handling historic documents other than to take the best care of the items in our possession as research, practice, and experience allow.

Archivists and curators worry about temperatures, humidity, ultraviolet light, acidity of packaging material and any number of other issues with regard to the materials in our care. We know it is appropriate to handle all metal objects and many other objects with cotton gloves. Other objects, those with a high probability of slipping through a cotton gloved hand, are more safely handled using latex gloves or nitrile gloves. With regard to handling paper, however, a number of issues arise which cloud the issue. First, and foremost, any glove reduces tactile sensitivity in the fingers, and with that loss of sensitivity the risk of damaging paper is increased as we turn pages, arrange documents for scanning, or photograph historic documents. Cotton has a tendency to snag on sharp edges and will tear brittle pages which have angular protrusions. Latex and other gloves made from man-made materials have their own risks when associated with allergies and powders individuals use with even non-powdered gloves.

In addition, the school is still out with regard to long term dangers of some gloves with regard to their abrasive actions on the printed page. This is but a short list of the concerns many archivists have associated with handling different archival and museum materials with gloved hands. On the positive side, what we can all agree upon is that preservation starts with clean, dry hands that handle archival materials in ways meant to minimize damage.

In recent years, the New York Public Library, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, and the National Archives of the United States have either foregone the use of gloves when handling historic documents or have made their use situation dependent. The National Archives of the United Kingdom adopted the following policy: "At The National Archives, our policy is that staff and visitors are not required to wear gloves unless easily-damaged material, such as photographs, is being consulted. Staff and readers are asked to ensure that their hands are clean and dry, and to refrain from applying hand cream or licking fingers before handling documents."

In line with those policies, the Stevenson University Archives prefer to handle our historic documents with clean, dry fingers and our photographs with gloves. If further scientific research provides a solution to this longtime conundrum, I will adopt such a solution if it is practical and applicable.

Glenn T. Johnston, Stevenson

The writer is Stevenson University's archivist.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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