Shouldn’t you be wearing white gloves?

Visitors to Chetham’s will be only too aware of the sartorial elegance on daily display at the Library. Indeed, of all the terms used to describe Library staff, ‘dapper’ is the one that most often trips off the tongue.

Few will be aware of the real reason behind our high standards, so let us reveal that here at Chetham’s we are slavish devotees of style manuals. For accessories, the finishing touch to any ensemble, we have only one bible: Edith Heal’s 1962 text Gloves: Fashion and Etiquette. No other document has such sound advice, containing a lists of do’s and don’ts that are self evident truths:

  • Do wear gloves for formal indoor occasions: receptions, balls, and on arrival at a luncheon or dinner party.
  • Do keep gloves on at a cocktail party until the drinks and hors d’oeuvres are passed. Then turn gloves back at the wrist or remove one glove.
  • Do wear gloves when you go shopping, visiting, driving; and for outdoor festivities such as garden parties, receptions.
  • Don’t ever appear in public without gloves.
  • Don’t eat, drink, or smoke with gloves on.
  • Don’t apply makeup with gloves on.

As with any style manual, regular updating is necessary, and we would like to offer our own very definite ‘DON’T’:

Don’t wear gloves in libraries.

Of all the questions which irritate Library staff, perhaps only ‘have you read all these books?’ raises our collective blood pressure more than ‘shouldn’t you be wearing gloves?’. The answer is, of course, a resounding ‘no’. People don’t wear gloves to read books. They don’t wear gloves to read books or newspapers at home and they don’t wear gloves to read books in a library. If you don’t believe us, try reading a 500-page paperback whilst wearing a pair of cotton gloves. Not easy.


Where does this library glove-fetish come from? This is a practice without any great pedigree. Institutional insistence that readers and staff don white cotton gloves when handling rare books and documents to prevent dirt and skin oils from damaging paper-based collections is a relatively new phenomenon dating from the last decade of the twentieth century. Possibly it owes something to a collective phobia about hygiene, the idea that without anti-bacterial wipes we are in danger of destroying half the world’s population.

Certainly it has been propagated by the huge numbers of television programmes devoted to antiques or to genealogy in which every single object has to be handled with white cotton gloves. In truth, white cotton gloves provide no guarantee of protecting books and paper from perspiration and dirt. Cotton gloves are not only useless, they are positively harmful. They increase the likelihood of inflicting physical damage to material, reduce manual dexterity and the sense of touch and increase the tendency to ‘grab’ at items. Cotton fibres may also lift or dislodge pigments and inks from the surfaces of pages and can even result in pages being snagged.

Clean hands, washed and thoroughly dried are perfectly adequate to safeguard rare books and archival collections. If you are still in any doubt, we direct you to the British Library guidelines ‘The use of white cotton gloves for handling collection items’. For full research see the article ‘Misperceptions about white gloves’ by Dr. Cathleen A. Baker and Randy Silverman from the December 2005 issue of International Preservation News.

Finally, to hammer the message home, it is time to resurrect the old joke: What do archivists and Michael Jackson have in common? They both wear white gloves for no purpose.



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