Thursday, 29 June 2017

The white gloves debate!

Whenever you visit an archive you will quite understandably have to obey certain rules and regulations in order to gain access to the documents you wish to see. None is perhaps more controversial, however, than the age old 'white glove' debate - the idea that in order to hold old documents you might have to wear a pair of white gloves to protect them. Many archives absolutely insist upon users doing so, whilst others absolutely insist on the opposite.

On Twitter last night I was surprised to see the National Records of Scotland ( tweeting an image of television presenter and archaeologist Neil Oliver wearing a pair of white gloves whilst examining a document for the BBC2 documentary “The Hector: From Scotland to Nova Scotia”. I wasn't surprised because he was in an archive wearing gloves, but because I have personally never been required to use a pair of white gloves at the NRS in over a decade!

So I did what every good researcher tries to do, and simply asked them - why was Neil wearing white gloves? The answer, in short, is that it was for the telly! But helpfully, the NRS has actually posted a blog post by archivist Dr. Tristram Clarke to clarify specifically why the presenter was wearing them, and the archive's policy on the use of gloves, which you can read at

Having previously made historical documentaries myself for the BBC, I'm not a hundred per cent convinced on the whole response - yes, presenters may be required to hold a document up for two or three takes, but probably no more so than somebody using the same document to make a transcription for research purposes, for example (who would probably hold it a lot more!). But I do agree with the last line: "The gloves are also a visual indication that the document is fragile and precious, and that we are caring for it professionally." It is television shorthand now to wear gloves, it's the equivalent of someone walking into an old shop with a sign above it saying "Ye Olde Shoppe" so that everyone watching knows that person is going into an old shop - it help sets the tone and context of the environment being portrayed.

So the bottom line at the NRS is that for the most part you will still not have to wear them, and that their policy has not changed - unless you are accessing photos (as identified in the archive's response), or intend to turn up with a camera crew (please give the archive advance notice on the latter!).

But what do you think - should we have to wear white gloves at archives?!

(With thanks to Christina and Tristram at the NRS)


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  1. I viewed early 19th century parish registers at the Church Representative Body in Dublin and was told that they believed you could treat the vellum more carefully without gloves, so gloves were prohibited. Phone or iPad photography however was not permitted, presumably more because of copyright than care.

  2. This debate has already taken place for the National Archives (in Kew, London) and the result seems to be that the TNA now asks film crews to REMOVE their white gloves, for the sake of portraying a consistent message. See here for more on this:

    Maybe the NRS should also consider this approach?

  3. I'm amused that the message seems to be to wear gloves on TV to show how much we care - but when you're here without a camera crew, no need!

  4. A book conservator I know tells me wearing white cotton gloves should not be worn when handling paper artifacts as there are often fragile edges that the gloves could catch and cause damage. Close fitting "surgical" gloves are better but as long as your hands are clean the object is better off without gloves - except for photographs which are metallic (silver emulsion creates the image) and are therefore affected by the oils and other substances on our hands. I don't see why the archives doesn't ask the programme to explain why or why not the host is wearing gloves. Wouldn't it be better to educate the public properly instead of "faking" it? What's wrong with admitting that one size does not fit all?