Why the White Gloves?

If you are reading this text on your iPad, you will probably have noticed that you have had to clean the screen several times already today. Every time you touch it, you leave some fingerprints. Even when using your desktop computer, you will probably have complained about the ‘fingers’ on your screen at some stage . And you will have noticed that some keys on your keyboard tend to get more dirty than others.

The same thing happens to all other objects you touch, including medieval manuscripts. Touching leaves tiny traces of fat and sweat that, sooner or later (depending on the surface), become visible. Not only do great numbers of fingerprints make a book look dirty, they also affect the structure of the paper or parchment, because their acidity works its way into the leaf, and makes it deteriorate faster. (For some researchers, though, the best old book is a ‘dirty book’!)

Using gloves is a way to solve this problem. But the famous white cotton gloves are hardly used anymore, because it is hard to get hold of a single leaf when you wear them. It is better to wear thin rubber gloves or to wash your hands regularly while visiting a reading room to consult manuscripts. (See for instance the British Library’s views on white gloves.) By far the best way to handle a manuscript is touching it as little as possible: after opening, just put a booksnake on the corner of the page you are consulting.

In general, you should be careful when dealing with manuscripts. The manuscripts that have survived the ages until now are the lucky ones. Many thousands of them must have been destroyed in wars and disasters, or were just discarded when they were of no use anymore. Each of them is unique and irreplaceable. Mr. Bean’s destructive visit to a library is a good example of how not to work with manuscripts! 

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