Thursday 25 August 2011


How television gives a false impression of archival work, why it matters, and the worrying medical parallels.

In my last post, I was ranting on about the use of the present tense in historical discourse. I was particularly critical of broadcasters, and here I go again. This time I'm on about gloves.

If you watch 'Who Do You Think You Are', or even more serious history-based programmes on BBC 4, you will be familiar with the scene:
The presenter is found, awed and whispering, in an apparently deserted library. The eminent archivist solemnly presents an ancient book or velum roll, and the celebrity reverently pulls on a pair of white cotton gloves to protect the precious artifact from contact with his foul and dangerous skin.
Cut to a close-up. The begloved finger is drawn across the line of text the producer wants to highlight.
Back to the wide shot. The orgasmic celeb gasps: ' Wonderful. Thrilling. What a privilege!'

Well, working in archives is wonderful, thrilling, and an immense privilege, and in the UK we are blessed with some of the best collections in the world, still (so far) maintained at public expense, and therefore rightly available for us all to access. We must protect them. But we need to make sure that the measures we take do more good than harm.

Now before I start on about gloves, let me make it clear that I welcome the many modern developments that are helping conservation -- digital imaging being perhaps the most important. There is no substitute for seeing the real thing (it's a practical, as well as an emotional necessity: only then, for example, can you tell a crucial comma from dirt on the camera) but even the grandest historian doesn't need to consult that original every time. Indeed having a digital image of a document on which you are working over a long period not only preserves the original from your repeated attention, it can save your bacon: illegible handwriting can be decipherable when blown up on a computer screen; documents held on different continents can be compared side-by-side; precious texts can be consulted in bed (or even, if you don't drop your ipad, in the bath). As a protective measure, digitising has wonderful side-effects.

But that other recent craze - using white gloves - can bring disaster. Although they may be required when handling some objects which are particularly vulnerable to fingermarks or human sweat, the idea peddled by the film-makers that they are an essential tool when consulting written archives is crackers.

Go and get a book now (any book) and put on some gloves. Try turning the pages. I bet you that within minutes you will have made at least a small tear in the edge of one of the leaves. Gloves are the enemies of dexterity. You wouldn't put them on to do cooking or sewing -- for obvious reasons. They impede the function of the human hand, which is so well designed to manipulate delicate things, and to sense when a light touch is required. If you want to do something carefully, do it with bare hands.

Ah, I hear you say, but what about dirt and sweat? Leave aside the view that some surfaces actually benefit from the oil in human skin, the best protection against those dangers is washing (and drying) your hands. Clean dry hands are the perfect tools for turning pages or unrolling scrolls. If your hands are made dirty by the document itself (if you're lucky you may be consulting something few people have seen for centuries, and those things can be pretty dusty) you can wash again. How many changes of gloves would you need to keep that white cotton clean? Cotton picks up dust and grit in no time. It spreads it across the the paper.

Most historians, using their own hands, would never dream of handling anything other than the extreme edges of a document. They certainly wouldn't run their bare fingers along the text. It just feels wrong. The delusion that a glove is something clean breaks down that psychological barrier. Hence the amateur genealogists on telly pointing their way though letters and registers like five-year-olds learning to read.

And here's another thing. If you go back far enough (perhaps to the beginning of the last century, before the wars brought first the necessity and then the skinflint habit of printing on inferior paper) the pages of most old books are actually pretty tough. Anyone who's had a paperback published will already know the embarrassment of being asked to sign a fairly new book that's going yellow at the edges and falls apart in your hands. Seventeenth century books are much more robust (they're often better printed too - particularly the pictures - but that's another story). Most of them can still stand up to being used for what they were meant for: reading.

The good news is that the mania for gloves is not universal. The British Library even has a video explaining why they are not always a good idea: a necessary corrective to the glove propaganda put out by the documentaries. Nevertheless, friends have told me that some archives, particularly small local ones, are beginning to fall for the glove delusion, perhaps because the public expect to be asked to wear gloves after what they have seen on TV.

Incidentally, The only time I have ever been offered gloves was when an assistant in an archive noticed that a box of velum court records was particularly dirty. She asked me whether I'd like some gloves to keep myself clean. In other words, the gloves were to protect me, and not the documents.

And that brings me to the medical link with all this. When I am not hanging out with historians, I spend a lot of time with doctors. As we all know, since the rise of concern about HIV and hospital infections such as MRSA there has been a huge interest in hygiene. This has led to far more use of gloves. I'm not saying that they are unnecessary, but a very wise medic pointed out to me recently that their main purpose is to protect the doctor, not the patient. Even though we may feel safer in the hands of gloved-up nurse, doctor, or dentist, we may be falling into the same psychological trap as the archival researchers.

The problem starts with the box the gloves are kept in. Watch next time you are in a hospital. How many people wash their hands before they plunge them in to pull out a glove? What happens to the germs on that that hand? They go on to the surface of next glove in the box -- the surface that is going to be in contact with the next patient. I talked about this with my dentist (as he scratched his nose with his gloved hand). He was graphic in his description of the possibilities for germ transmission . It's not that the gloves are useless, and they genuinely do protect the professionals from our body fluids, but they also make them feel as clean on the outside of the glove as they are on the inside, and that simply isn't the case. The same goes for everyone involved in cleaning and maintenance in medical settings. Unless they change their gloves between tasks, there is no reason to think that you are any better protected from other patients' germs than you would be if the staff had bare hands.

Now. here's a digression:
Why do gynaecologists wear bow ties (as opposed to long dangly ones)?
The answer is nothing to do with trying to look distinguished.

Gloves do have some uses, of course - even in a medical setting:

I can see this one ending up on Dragon's Den. But in the archival context we should always ask ourselves why we are wearing them, and own up if we they make us dangerously clumsy.

So if anyone ever insists on you using gloves in an archive, use your common sense. Ask the archivist why you should wear them (there may be a good reason relating to the particular material you are consulting) but if you find that they prevent you handling the document with appropriate care, say so, and ask for help. Libraries are full of aids to make the physical process of consulting original material less risky. There are special stands, weights, cushions and acid-free place markers. It's quite rare to be told that they are available, where they are, or how to use them. Find out. It will prolong the life of irreplaceable documents, and make the joy of working in an archive less anxiety-laden, and even more intense.
Most of my historical novels have a medical theme. The Montmorency books feature a doctor who stumbles into ethical traps, and Johnny Swanson, set in 1929, is in part about the fight against tuberculosis.


Penny Dolan said...

Really enjoyed this post as not only is it incredibly interesting but my dear photographer husband spends much time sighing and muttering when the various "searchers" on screen haven't put on the white gloves. Off I go to alert him to your wise if not entriely comforting words. Thank you.

adele said...

This is completely fascinating, Ellie! I will be most nervous round gloves in hospitals now. And LOVE the bow tie thing!

K.M.Grant said...

Hi Eleanor, Excellent post. I've always assumed archivists and librarians knew best, but then I always assumed that of doctors, and have been proven wrong time and again. I visited a great Library in Cambridge and, to my surprise, wasn't asked to put on gloves. The librarian there clearly knew what he was doing. The experience of touching those tiny holes painstakingly pricked by nameless medieval monks to plan out the page was one I won't forget in a hurry - communication at first hand, as it were - and the books were perfectly preserved.

Susan Price said...

I second Adele - fascinating! I really hadn't stopped to think about the white gloves - now I have something else to mutter about! And true - the ancient vellum books at Durham look new!

Sue Purkiss said...

Very interesting. I was at a training session a couple of years ago at a National Trust house, and the conservator was chatting about a David Dimbleby programme where he was examining ancient books and NOT WEARING GLOVES - shocking, she said! It is a bugbear of mine , the way that something someone hears is then repeated by them as if it's dogma - where's your evidence, I want to roar! So thanks for providing some...

Lynn said...

Wonderful, wonderful post! Thanks.

Katherine Langrish said...

fantastic post, Ellie! Stuff I'd never thought of before, but how lovely to know we CAN handle old books bare-handed without doing damage.

Sandra said...

As a librarian, whose remit covers a small, rather old, ickky and decaying collection of books, I am dubious about cloth gloves too. But I do wear nyrex gloves which maintains good dexterity, as long as they are a good fit. They are mostly to protect my hands though! However, if the collection is in a bad state they need conserving properly (no money for that) or just leaving on the shelves/in the boxes as much as possible. I've completed a catalogue which has gone to an amenity society and may mean the collection gets used more and therefore subject to more damage - the curator's bind: you want to give access but the artefact is fragile. Will probably be wearing mask the next time I go into that collection, too, as it's rather unpleasant if not actually toxic! A plea though. Don't harass your local archivist over glove busines. Follow the rules (which may not actually be set by them ...), smile sweetly and you'll get to see what you want to see.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Good advice, Sandra... And what a brilliant article, Eleanor! I read it this morning (obviously) after hearing Katie tell that very anecdote about running her fingertips over pin pricks at her event yesterday afternoon! (Here at the Edinburgh book festival). I did my MA thesis on a Syriac version of the Old Testament Book of Esther. I was working with a beautiful little vellum codex of the 9th century AD & had to wear the dreaded gloves. And they WERE terribly insensitive... Let's hope they've revised their policy.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Good advice, Sandra... And what a brilliant article, Eleanor! I read it this morning (obviously) after hearing Katie tell that very anecdote about running her fingertips over pin pricks at her event yesterday afternoon! (Here at the Edinburgh book festival). I did my MA thesis on a Syriac version of the Old Testament Book of Esther. I was working with a beautiful little vellum codex of the 9th century AD & had to wear the dreaded gloves. And they WERE terribly insensitive... Let's hope they've revised their policy.

Mogcat said...

Speaking as an expert from the glove industry things may actually be worse than you fear. Very few things in nature are naturally white and cotton is most certainly not one of them. This means the gloves in question will have been bleached and may potentially carry residues that may be harmful to the documents. I cannot guarantee it but I would assume undyed 'ecru' cotton to be safer if it were deemed neccesary.

As a side note there is pretty good evidence that germ survival on a medical rubber glove or its box is extremely low - there's no food and most rubbers are mildly cytotoxic. The biggest contamination of those products is in the wearer touching things (s)he shouldnt and not changing them often enough.