Last week we were involved with a number of sessions to introduce english students to the wonders of 19th century periodicals. The materials included copies of The Graphic, Lady's Own Paper and the Illustrated London News. For each session our Archivist and one of the Academic Liaison Team introduced the material and gave a short introduction on how to use and handle the materials. Much to our surprise, one of the students showed some disappointment when asked to wash their hands prior to handling the material rather than wearing the magic cotton gloves.
So, when and why did donning gloves first appear in the archival annals? Surprisingly, Baker and Silverman suggest the spread of gloves into the reading room has only occurred during the last twenty years and as such it is a fairly new development.  There are few who would disagree that throughout this period our appetite for the past has grown which has perhaps necessitated a response to control the ever increasing demands placed on some archival material.
It could also be said that gloves contribute towards our experience of the past by building a sense of anticipation and occasion when we view historical material. This effect has long been utilised by television to inspire awe in its audiences and in so doing build viewer expectations during historical and genealogical programmes.The gloves reinforce the fragility of the past as if without them to protect it, the past will escape our grasp and disappear into the ether. This has not been without benefit to the guiding archival principle of preservation. This deference to the past increases our sense of value in a document or object, so facilitating the archival goal of preservation by guiding a user's behaviour towards an archive.
Yet, the question as to whether or not you should wear gloves remains undecided. Many Conservators and Archivists no longer recommend their use. This is largely because the initial delight in donning the magic gloves is soon replaced by frustration and discomfort as sensitivity to touch is reduced, encouraging rougher treatment of the material through the inability to fully interact with the item. Neither The National Archive or British Library requires readers to wear cotton gloves, unless handling particularly delicate material such as photographs. [2+3] However, there are institutions that still prefer gloves to be worn and. noting the difficulties of using cotton, supply nitrile gloves instead. Archives Outside is a website managed by staff at the State Records Repository of NSW Australia, to help promote other archives in the state and advise on the care and management of those collections. The senior conservator there recommends in their general handling procedures that when handling archives, gloves should be worn where possible, but points out plastic as the best option, so circumventing the issues of reduced sensitivity. [ 4] Indeed, they even ran a poll of reader's preferences between nitrile and cotton, and found cotton ranked very closely behind nitrile with 29% compared to 26%. A surprisingly close result considering the supposed difficulties of using cotton.The Jury remains out!
What do you think? Is it best to recommend gloves or do you think most readers respect the rules and wash their hands?
Silverman, Randy. & Baker, Cathleen A. 'Misperceptions about white gloves', International Preservation News, No. 37 Dec 2005 http://archive.ifla.org/VI/4/news/ipnn37.pdf [Accessed 8/11/2012]
The National Archives, 'What is the policy of the National Archives on wearing gloves to handle documents', http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/information-management/projects-and-work/preventative-conservation-measures.htm [Accessed 8/11/12]
Pimlott, Jane. 'Use of white cotton gloves for handling collection items' http://www.bl.uk/aboutus/stratpolprog/ccare/introduction/preservation/usingcollections/whitegloves.pdf
 Hadlow, Elizabeth. Archives Outside,'General Handling Procedures' http://archivesoutside.records.nsw.gov.au/moving-and-handling-archives-the-basics/ [9/11/12]
Archives Outside, 'Glove Poll', http://archivesoutside.records.nsw.gov.au/quick-poll-do-your-readers-use-gloves-when-accessing-archives/ [9th Nov 2009]