Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

19 August 2011

White Gloves or Not White Gloves

Whenever a British Library manuscript is featured in the press or on television, we inevitably receive adverse comments about our failure to wear white gloves! The association of glove-wearing with handling old books is in fact a modern phenomenon, and one that has little scientific basis.

A hand wearing a white glove. 

The British Library has published advice on the use of white gloves. Essentially, we recommend that it is preferable to handle manuscripts with clean dry hands. Wearing cotton gloves to hold or turn the pages of a book or manuscript actually reduces manual dexterity, and increases the likelihood of causing damage. Gloves also have a tendency to transfer dirt to the object being consulted, and to dislodge pigments or inks from the surface of pages.

This short video demonstrates how not to handle a manuscript wearing white gloves (or, indeed, gloves of any colour).

It's also reassuring to know that it was recognized in the Middle Ages that wearing gloves to handle books was to be frowned upon. There is a story of a certain Lady Zwedera, a new recruit to the congregation of Deventer (in the modern Netherlands), who "happily wore clean white gloves on her hands, as if she liked cleanness, and said that she did so lest she mark the books from which she often and diligently read the holy scripture; but when she heard from one of the fathers that because of such cleanness, which carried before it a certain extravagance, she would suffer purgatory, she at once abandoned them." So now you know the dangers that may confront you if you don the dreaded white gloves!

(We are indebted to our former colleague Nicole Eddy, of the University of Notre Dame, for drawing this anecdote to our attention.)

For further British Library advice regarding the handling of collection items, please see: 

Visit our Medieval England and France website to discover how to make a medieval manuscript, to read beastly tales from the medieval bestiary, and to learn about medieval science, medicine and monastic libraries.


Many repositories are embracing clean oil-free hands.

Thank you for putting in writing the pure truth! having to wear white gloves actually hampers the researcher and doesn't do any good to the manuscripts.

Good information , having seen the non use of gloves
I was about to over react .

So just wear gloves that actually fit, wash them between uses, and be careful with pages or use gloves with mild grip. Yes, it's a pain, and you have to do things much more slowly. But doing things properly often is a pain. We don't just abandon good practice because it's inconvenient. Where is the research on people who think their hands are cleaner than they actually are? Having actually taught hand-washing (whereby we ask participants to put a white powder on their hands and then go wash it off), I have seen that most people do not know how to wash their hands properly (a black light is then used to highlight how much of the hand was missed, and usually it is most of the hand that glows). Yes, sometimes bare hands must be used, but we have been given an inch and are now taking a mile here. I just came back from a visit to a medieval library where they just assumed visitors already had clean hands and allowed bare hand touching. We weren't even asked to wash our hands, and they referred to the British Library and the National Archives when asked where their information came from. Please be more specific about the conditions under which bare hands are acceptable, and what "clean" means (i.e."not wholly covered in tar" is not the same as "clean").

Thank you for the comment. We provide a link to the most recent scientific advice in the post above, which also refers to the use of gloves when handling certain items such as globes and photographs. As a general rule, it is more difficult to manipulate the pages of old books when wearing gloves, which increase the risk of accidental damage.
Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts, The British Library

Some people suffer from sweaty palms no matter what the temperature. How do you take this condition into consideration?

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