In the cliché image (to the extent that there is an image at all), a conservator might look like a doctor, with lab coat and white gloves, poised with a scalpel or brush over a priceless painting or manuscript. The gloves are a standard issue part of the cliché. After all, if you go to an archive and request to see a rare item, you will probably be asked to don the gloves. Therefore, it seems like it must be a general rule about handling artifacts: always wear gloves.
But if you ever take a tour of the
Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, you will see conservators working on amazing historical documents and artworks – Audubon prints and illuminated manuscripts and Jefferson letters – and they’ll mainly be working without gloves. Most visitors are surprised to see this.
Paper is always at-risk when human hands are present. Hands are notorious dirt magnets. Seemingly tiny amounts of dirt and grime quickly build up on paper surfaces over a series of handlings. Just look at any popular old book for the dirty thumb spot where a finger naturally falls when opening the book. And hands are oily, too, and these oils can migrate deeply into the paper, causing long-term damage.
Indeed, wearing gloves is not a bad idea at all! They are an excellent defense against dirt and oil. Archives should ask you to don the pair of gloves before handling requested items.
But gloves have their downside as well. In particular, they decrease dexterity. A conservator’s work depends on delicate precision handwork and that simply can’t be achieved when working through a cotton barrier. Conservators need to feel the paper they are working with.
Over the next two weeks, I will be working with Rebecca Smyrl, Conservator at the
for Art and Historic Artifacts, as we discuss preservation strategies for the newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals in our family collection. Rebecca doesn’t think it’s necessary for me to invest in the white gloves to handle these particular items: “When turning the pages of old newspapers or magazines, even thin cotton gloves can catch and tear the paper. It’s probably enough to simply wash your hands thoroughly before handling to get the oils off your hands. Conservation Center
“Also,” Rebecca adds, “on the subject of hand washing, I think that many people may apply lotion or moisturizer after washing, but they should skip this step before handling any archival materials.”
© 2011 Lee Price