For rare book librarians, it's gloves off. Seriously.

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For rare book librarians, it's gloves off. Seriously.
A white glove unraveling in New York, Feb. 27, 2023. When handling rare books, experts say that bare, just-cleaned hands are best. (Bobby Doherty/The New York Times)

by Jennifer Schuessler

NEW YORK, NY.- Last month, The New York Times reported on an ultrarare medieval Hebrew Bible that was headed to auction with a record-smashing estimate of up to $50 million.

The reaction was swift.

“Why are they handling this without cotton gloves? Shame on them,” one reader wrote in the comments section, referring to photographs showing someone touching the worn pages.

“This photo is disturbing,” wrote another. “Why is this person touching such an old book with ungloved hands?”

The alarmed tweets and emails kept rolling in. At the same time, a silent scream of exasperation arose at rare book libraries around the world.

People who handle rare books for a living are used to doing battle with a range of dastardly scourges, including red rot, beetles and thieves. But there is one foe that drives many of them particularly crazy: the general public’s unshakable — and often vehemently expressed — belief that old books should be handled with Mickey Mouse-style white cotton gloves.

“The glove thing,” Maria Fredericks, director of conservation at the Morgan Library and Museum, said when contacted about the matter, sounding slightly weary. “It just won’t die.”

“Every time it comes up, I sigh deeply,” said Eric Holzenberg, director of the Grolier Club, the nation’s oldest private society of book collectors. “And then I give my three-sentence explanation of why it’s” — to use a milder term than he did — bunk.

To politely sum up the current consensus: Gloves reduce your sense of touch, increasing the likelihood that you might accidentally tear a page, smear pigments, dislodge loose fragments — or worse, drop the book.

And whatever their associations with cleanliness, cotton gloves attract dirt. They also tend to make hands sweat, generating moisture that can damage a page. Rubber gloves, while moisture-proof and generally better fitted to the hand, are too grabby.

While there are some exceptions, librarians overwhelmingly agree.

“The best way to handle a rare book,” said Mark Dimunation, the longtime head of the rare books and special collections division at the Library of Congress, “is with clean hands and caution.”

Still, members of the public love to insist otherwise — often very loudly. And some experts have developed ways of coping.

Allie Alvis, a rare book cataloger and book historian who posts on social media as Book Historia, got so tired of responding to indignant comments about gloves that she created a smartphone shortcut to instantly generate her tactful three-sentence explanation. “I found myself having to type it out five or six times a day,” she said.

Alvis, who previously worked at the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, has also created a video about “the cotton menace,” as part of her video series “Bite Sized Book History.” It’s just one example of the surprisingly robust anti-white-glove content on YouTube, Tumblr and TikTok.

There’s even some white-glove-themed Star Wars fan fiction. If you don’t believe librarians, take it from C-3PO: “There is simply no scientific evidence that handling paper or parchment with bare hands causes damage.”

The notion that rare books should be handled with gloves makes a certain sense, even if it contradicts another stereotype that annoys professionals: that archives are “dusty.” White gloves signal purity, value, status.

“When people interact with rare books, sometimes they are interacting with a fantasy of how the past is valued,” said Barbara Heritage, associate director and curator of collections at Rare Book School, a summer institute housed at the University of Virginia.

It can be “shocking,” Heritage said, to see precious books handled with bare hands. “But that’s how these books were read, and how they were made,” she said.

White gloves have an inherent theatricality, as any old-school magician can attest. Even today, auction houses that eschew gloves in their back rooms have been known to use them in publicity photographs, to add to a book’s aura (and price).

Alvis, echoing others, said that some media outlets — she wouldn’t name names — have been known to suggest that librarians don them for film or photo shoots, perhaps to stave off a torrent of angry comments from the public.

So where does the white-glove myth come from? A frequently cited 2005 scholarly article, “Misperceptions About White Gloves,” found little historical support for the practice. Rather, the stereotype seemed to really take root in the public mind in the 1990s, the authors found, possibly thanks to images in archival supply catalogs.

Pop culture has hardly helped matters. In the movie “National Treasure,” Nicolas Cage and his co-conspirators wear white gloves while handling the Declaration of Independence. (They also squeeze lemon juice on the document and blast it with a hairdryer, in an attempt to reveal a secret message.)

In the 1999 bibliothriller “The Ninth Gate,” Johnny Depp, who plays a swashbuckling book dealer tasked with authenticating a 17th-century volume that may contain an incantation for summoning the devil, does not wear gloves. But he does press the precious volume flat on a photocopier, and at one point even stashes it behind a minifridge.

“That’s the worst place to keep a book,” Heritage said. The film, whose howlers have inspired a drinking game at Rare Book School, is “basically about how not to treat books.”

There are exceptions to the bare-hands rule. Books including some kinds of photographic materials are best handled with gloves; the Library of Congress recommends “clean nitrile gloves.” The same goes for books made from ivory or encased in metal bindings, or certain kinds of cloth.

For example, the so-called Lincoln Bible, which Barack Obama and Donald Trump used to swear their oath of office (barehanded), is sometimes handled with gloves to avoid damage to the velvet binding, Dimunation said.

And then there are poison books. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Alvis said, budget-minded bookbinders sometimes recycled cheap manuscript waste paper as a binding, coating it with arsenic-laced green paint to mimic leather. And in the Victorian period, some publishers used binding cloth dyed with colors such as Scheele’s green, an industrially produced hue also containing arsenic.

If you do happen to touch one of these 19th-century bookish equivalents of red M&M’s, don’t panic.

“The moral of the story is, don’t lick the books and you will be fine,” Alvis said.

Before handling a rare book, some people take off rings and watches. Some libraries forbid even clear nail polish. Hand-sanitizer and lotion are also no-nos.

Of course, a streak of nail polish or a bit of lunch left by a long-dead reader is data, potentially revealing something about a book’s passage through time.

Alvis, who works at the antiquarian bookseller Type Punch Matrix in Silver Spring, Maryland, has twice found fingernail clippings in the gutters of 18th-century books.

“I kept them where they were,” she said.

Others have taken a more proactive approach.

In 2019, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington unveiled Project Dustbunny, which aims to analyze DNA extracted from the gunk swabbed out of some of its books.

So far, there has been no sign of Shakespeare’s genome. As for today’s to-glove-or-not-to-glove conversation, Greg Prickman, the Folger’s librarian and director of collections, said in an email that he was reluctant to waste time on the white-glove myth, calling it “almost impossible to dispel.”

As it happens, Prickman was speaking from the trenches. He was getting ready to film a PBS documentary on Shakespeare’s First Folio, he noted, adding: “I will not be wearing white gloves onscreen, which will inevitably invite comment.”

When Alvis does see someone post photos of books being handled with gloved hands, she doesn’t scold them. And she admits she sometimes tries it at home, in the spirit of scientific inquiry.

“I put them on and pick up a book and sort of jiggle myself around, to see how slippery they are,” she said. “They’re pretty frigging slippery.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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