Why don’t you wear white gloves? [rant]

The White Gloves thing came up again because Chicago Magazine used it while promoting an article about the Newberry.

Rare book people often feel the same way about white gloves as when archives are referred to as “dusty.”

This is a reposting of a rant from 2011 back on the now-defunct NIU rare books blog.

ILAB.org posted an article called “White Gloves: Functionable or Fashionable” yesterday, once again rehashing the whole “handling rare books requires wearing white cotton gloves” thing for their readers. They were fairly evenhanded, interviewing professionals who are both for and against white cotton gloves in rare book rooms.

Just in case you were dying to know my feelings on the subject, they are simple: I hate the darned things. I avoid wearing white cotton gloves while handling our materials whenever humanly possible.

Here’s why.

1. I’m a clutz. Unlike folks who may have grown up during an era when wearing gloves indoors was de rigeur as part of ladylike fashion (or who are avid costumers and reenactors), and therefore have sufficient practice to function reasonably well, I can’t actually be dextrous in the things. I’m far more likely to damage a book when wearing white cotton gloves than I am handling it with clean, bare hands, personally.

2. I think I look kind of dumb in them.  There, I said it. I feel like Minnie Mouse. And not in a good way. Look, walking in heels when I need to dress as a grownup is enough of a challenge on a regular basis, ok? Don’t make my day even harder.

3. White cotton gloves don’t protect me from anything. If I AM going to wear gloves, it’s far more likely to be latex gloves that keep me from getting ink on my hands when using the Common Press, or when handling something fragile from our Southeast Asia collection. I can be dextrous in latex gloves, if need be. And if there’s anything weird on the object that I don’t want to touch with my skin (like, say, mold), the latex is a better barrier than cotton for protecting me. Plus? Disposable. I can just chuck them when I’m done, without the hassle of having to remember to bring them home to wash them.

4. I think they create an unnecessary social barrier. This is the real reason I hate them.

White cotton gloves feed into the whole social privilege aspect of special collections and rare books that keep people away from them and afraid of them, by silently telling patrons and guests “this is too fancy and expensive and special for anyone to handle, let alone you. I’m a fancy-pants curator and even I’m not allowed to touch it.”

99.9% of the time, that’s simply not true. Most books, even rare ones, are replaceable or repairable. (Obviously, not all, but in my university’s collection? Most.) The tactile sensation of handling a rare book, however fleeting, is one that I think should be available to everyone, with reasonable precautions in place (such as handwashing before the fact and gentle handling). I’ve seen people cry when handling First Folios. (Not on the book! they were very careful about that!) That moment of handling a rare book can change someone’s life for the better, putting them in touch with their own history, their own deeply-held passions. These materials can inspire people. Why are we trying to keep them away?

Goodness knows, I wouldn’t be a curator now if the curators I worked with at my alma mater hadn’t encouraged me to touch the books, to look at them, to get to know them intimately (both with and without the vacuum cleaner I was using to gently clean them at the time). Handling those books made me who I am, because curators that came before me didn’t think that I wasn’t important enough to touch the books, even if I happened to be a working class first-generation college student, rather than coming from a family of rare books collectors and connoisseurs.

At the very least, making handling rare materials more democratic can only bring us more support in the long run. Rare books should be for everyone. I’m a public employee at a state institution. These are literally the people of Illinois’ rare books, bought and paid for through gifts, taxes, and tuition. I am their steward. The more people that come to use their books, the better. Anything that creates even more barriers between the patrons and the books is not a good thing, in my opinion.

The best way to convince our public that cultural heritage materials are important is to encourage individual ownership of the notion. Especially when budgets are tight, we want our patrons to be fighting for the appropriate stewardship of our materials, not deciding that really, rare books are just a luxury for rich people only, and therefore can be cut from budgets in favor of other stuff.

Most patrons-off-the-street are exceedingly gentle with the materials that we bring them to use in our reading rooms. They already know that this stuff is special (it’s in the name!). They don’t need us to remind them of that fact by making them feel clumsy and unwelcome by forcing them to wear white gloves, or by wearing gloves ourselves.

It’s just not worth it.

Thus endeth my rant on white cotton gloves.

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About Lynne M. Thomas

Lynne M. Thomas is a five time Hugo Award winning editor and podcaster. In her day job, she is Head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
This entry was posted in libraries, puttin on my ranty pants and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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