Evan Knight’s Tips for Becoming a Book Conservator

I get asked this question quite frequently, and fortunately, Evan Knight gave a great answer on the AIC Membership Forum. He agreed to republish an expanded version of his original post here. Lots of solid advice. Thanks Evan!

I can relate to this question. Been there. It may seem possible to become a conservator based on experiences alone, but I think that route is more expensive, riskier, and more time-consuming than pursuing graduate school. At least that was my calculus when I decided to pursue a career in the field.

Like any craft or trade, it takes years of practice and study to get ‘good’—that is, to consistently perform ethical, effective, and elegant conservation treatment. Although some trades and/or their unions have apprenticeship pathways into their fields, ours does not. So finding paid local opportunities in the field can be challenging (at any level)—especially for entry-level positions. They just don’t come up very often. Granted, on your own, you might be able to study conservation and take occasional workshops, but they can only take you so far. Workshops don’t bestow certain skills—in my opinion, they can provide excellent training, but it is complementary to your bench work. And academic study, while important too, doesn’t adequately prepare you to perform quality craft work either.

About this field more generally, my advice is that all paths into and through conservation will be a constant hustle. Often very rewarding, but a struggle, nonetheless. Money issues will never go away, even in grad school and afterwards. I had to have second jobs for years, before, during, and after grad school, and anecdotally, several colleagues–some extremely experienced and responsible conservators–don’t make six figures. So the road is challenging and the ceiling can be limited for many of us: something to consider if you might eventually intend to live in a high-cost-of-living location, buy a home, raise a family, take vacations, etc. But such is the nature of our field, and it’s not that different from other related professions in the arts and humanities, and even roles in academia. For better and worse, performing high quality work on exceptional objects is often our greatest motivation and results in our greatest fulfillment.

I was given somewhat similar advice: that I’d never make deluxe money — yet I was still compelled to pursue conservation for books, prints, and archives, even though my undergrad focused on humanities and history. So I went about getting conservation experience, knocking down graduate school pre-req’s, and becoming a competitive candidate for graduate schools.

Early in my 20s, I had a day job in a totally different field, and clung to it as longer than reasonable(!), while finding initial volunteering opportunities on the weekends (at a high-end book bindery) and one day a week at a conservation lab (at an art museum library). I read a great deal of art historical / print history books, and took workshops in box making, book binding, even fly-tying, plus a couple intermediate drawing courses. It’s great that you’re in a city like Chicago — opportunities for hands-on experience in conservation or closely related fields tend to be located near great collections. Whatever collection formats you might wish to learn about or work with, Chicago certainly has ’em. Connect via email and phone with any lab you learn about and let them know where you’re at. Try AIC’s “Find a Conservator” tool, or if you’re a member, the professional directory, and of course, your own internet research into museums, special collections repositories, etc. They might not have something for you right away, but then follow up six months or sometime later; or maybe they can only host volunteers on a certain day of the week. Remember that hosting a volunteer or intern can take significant time and effort on their part, and sometimes they can’t swing it. Private conservation studios can ramp up and down based on certain large projects or grants — as a “technician” or intern or what have you. But without any experience, it might not be realistic either (chicken / egg situation)—though still worth a shot in my opinion. In my experience, most everyone I met in my journey was willing to at least talk with me, help me out if they could, or point me to other opportunities.

To be a competitive candidate for conservation grad school you will need significant academic pre-requisites in addition to conservation experience. Each program has different pre-req’s so learn what they are and plan to ‘fill in’ what you don’t yet have because those are non-negotiable. Chemistry is typically the biggest hurdle. I personally went through 2 years of chem after my undergrad (4 courses in total), which went fine, but I took them at rigorous and expensive schools, which in retrospect wasn’t the most cost-effective choice. I thought Ivy League chemistry would be really useful in the long run of my career but in my experience, they weren’t: save your money and find nearby public options. Long story short, it will likely take a couple years until you will be a competitive candidate, so plan accordingly how you might make it all work – financially, academically, and experientially.

I’m sharing my response publicly because the dearth of reasonable opportunities at all levels, but especially those at the entry-level, is a profession-wide issue. It seems, to me at least, that most paths into and within our great field require a great deal of time and money at many career stages (not just pre-program), and a laser focus on the profession from an early age. Healthy industries have pro-active employers and active affiliate organizations that systemically cultivate equitable access for opportunities for their workers at every stage of their careers. I don’t know that we’re so healthy and equitable, but I know that many do care, and have worked hard to improve this in our field.

I’m happy to support your journey and wish you luck: slow and steady is my advice, honestly assessing your career interests and prospects periodically along the way (it’s ok to move on from something; or to specialize in something – it’s all a part of growing personally and professionally), while of course to continue earning income in whatever ways that make sense!

Other Resources

AIC’s how to become a conservator

AIC’s 2014 Salary Survey

Evan Knight looking quite proud of his innovative double drop spine box!

Evan Knight is the Preservation Specialist with Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners since Dec 2018 and Proprietor of Knight Art Services LLC since 2021. He is a Peer-reviewed Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation (PA-AIC). Previously, he was an Associate Conservator of bound and unbound materials at the Boston Athenaeum, with prior conservation employment at the Northeast Document Conservation Center, the Library of Congress, the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas, and the Municipal Archives of New York City. Additional internships undertaken at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center-Book Conservation Lab, Biblioteca Ludwig von Mises (Guatemala), Buffalo Bill Center for the West, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art-Watson Library.

Should I wear white cotton gloves to handle rare books? Short answer: NO! A Guest Blog Post by Cathleen A. Baker and Randy Silverman

This article first appeared in International Preservation News, No. 37, 2005. I still get this question countless times a year from clients, and Cathy and Randy kindly granted me permission to republish it for a broader audience.

In the almost 16 years since this was published, many libraries and collectors have changed the way that they approach the handling of paper and books. However, there are still proponents of glove-wearing who insist that theoretically the chemicals perspired from the hands can damage paper. However, what they fail to consider is the overwhelming evidence in front of them and on the shelves of countless libraries that in reality, such damage simply doesn’t happen.

Cathleen A. Baker, 9 September 2021


Awkward mobility. Loss of feeling. Impaired sensations. These are not descriptions of a trip to the dentist, but rather of a visit to the reading rooms of many U.S. special collections where the experience of handling the nation’s most valuable rare books and documents is synonymous with wearing white cotton gloves. This paper examines the effect of this well-meaning effort to protect our irreplaceable holdings from soiling in the context of the potential for physical damage introduced by handicapping the handler. Routine hand washing is recommended as a more effective means of preventing the spread of dirt while improving the user’s haptic response to and tactile appreciation of the collections.

This article limits its focus to historical books and paper-based collections. The authors acknowledge that other media types, including photographic prints, negatives, and slides, as well as three-dimensional objects (especially those manufactured from tarnishing metals), have specific handling problems most appropriately addressed by specialists within those individual fields. 


Books must not be handled with dirty fingers, and what is as bad for fine books, must not be handled with gloves. Readers must be required to remove their gloves in turning over the leaves of handsome, illustrated volumes, though they are frequently reluctant to do so (Kroeger 1903, 320).1

How, you may wonder, did the wearing of gloves become a mandatory requirement for reading rare archival and library material in some collections? This policy, intended to “preserve” historically and artistically significant collections, arguably does more harm than good.

Institutional insistence that patrons and special collections staff don white cotton gloves when handling rare books and documents to prevent dirt and skin oils from damaging collection materials, specifically paper, is flawed because it overlooks the most obvious failing of cotton gloves; they, too, are easily soiled. Cotton gloves are extremely absorbent, both from within and without; for example, even a scrupulously clean reading room can provide numerous opportunities for gloves to pick up dirt and transfer it to surfaces such as a text page. Table and chair surfaces may contain residues of cleaning and polishing solutions; foam book cradles and their fabric covers become increasingly imbedded with dust and particles such as red-rot shed from leather bindings; and makeup, skin creams, and skin oil (sebum) can offset to the glove’s exterior with the scratch of a nose. 

Cotton gloves may not even help keep the reader’s hands clean. In addition to accumulating dirt on the outer surface of the glove, warmth resulting from insulating the hand stimulates eccrine sweat gland production (Hurley 2001), increasing hand dampness that is subsequently wicked through the porous fabric. This in turn increases the likelihood that the glove will attract, absorb, and distribute surface grime to the paper being handled. Nor is the glove’s raw fiber particularly ideal for the job, as Jens Glastrup determined through extractions, discovering that cotton itself contains fats and alkanes (Glastrup 1997). 

A closer look at the fluids themselves may help us understand what “sweat” is. Human perspiration is secreted from eccrine sweat glands, which are distributed over the entire surface of the body except for “the lips, ear canals, glans penis, and nail beds” (Thibodeau and Patton 1996, 200). Sweat itself is a slightly acidic liquid composed almost exclusively of water (99.0–99.5%). The remaining solutes are nearly evenly divided between inorganic salts, e.g., sodium, chloride, potassium, calcium, and magnesium; and organic substances, e.g., uric acid, creatinine-creatine, nitrogen, ammonia, lactic acid/lactate, glucose, and bicarbonate (Hurley 2001, 71–72). Sebaceous glands, which are responsible for secreting sebum (composed on the skin’s surface of 42% triglycerides, 25% wax esters, 15% free fatty acids, 15% squalene, 2% cholesterol esters, and 1% cholesterol), do not exist on the palms of the hands or the soles or dorsum of the feet (Botek and Lookingbill 2001, 87, 94). From this, it can be seen that the transfer of sebum through normal collection handling is not a significant issue.

Given the ubiquitous acceptance of the concept that routine handling of paper with bare hands chemically damages it, it is telling that our research uncovered no scientific evidence supporting this notion. The closest citation on the subject we found was an article entitled, “Fingerprints on Photographs” written by Klaus Hendriks and Rütiger Krall (1993). In this article, the authors stated that a fingerprint could damage the silver image if the salts in sweat, particularly sodium chloride, managed to penetrate through the gelatin layer. Since the surface of paper is almost always protected by a layer of gelatin (or some other sizing agent), sodium chloride would have to permeate this barrier before it could interact with the cellulose beneath. However, no one would propose that the corrosion potential of cellulose could be remotely equated with that of silver. As discovered by Hendriks and Krall, the other necessary component for the silver corrosion reaction is oxygen, and it can be argued that bound sheets of paper in closed books are not exposed to high levels of environmental oxygen for long periods of time, and neither are unbound sheets stored along with other pieces of paper in archival storage folders and boxes.

Additionally, Douglas Nishimura of the Image Permanence Institute at Rochester Institute for Technology described a steel industry corrosion test in which he took part, an experiment that Hendriks researched for his 1993 paper with Krall. First, twenty people wore PVC gloves for five to ten minutes to make their hands sweat; the gloves were then removed and each subject, now bare-handed, touched a piece of steel. Nishimura reports that “several could rust a [steel] plate after the ‘glove sweat test’” (1997). This test was followed by having the participants washing their hands with a non-ionic surfactant followed by extensive water rinses. Of these twenty participants, only one, characterized by the medical literature as a “ruster” (Hendriks and Krall 1993), transferred enough perspiration to corrode the metal (Nishimura 1997). This latter example illustrates that the majority of people, after thoroughly washing and rinsing their hands, probably will not transfer enough sweat to damage paper under normal conditions. For those few who perspire heavily (5% in the IPI experiment), the only effective barrier against what Marion Sulzberger terms the “skin’s sprinkler system” (Hurley 2001, 47) is a non-porous glove made from vinyl or latex. Needless to say, singling out “rusters” among staff and patrons for mandatory glove-use may infringe upon their civil liberties and trigger a variety of unwanted consequences. A far better approach, we contend, is simply to require everyone to periodically clean their hands. 

The issue is more complex, however, than whether or not sweat or sebum is transferred and under what conditions. Even if cotton gloves were capable of providing an effective, prophylactic barrier between the patron and the collection, curators would still need to teach people to identify the point at which their gloves had become sufficiently soiled to require a replacement pair. Glove-use also promotes the illusion that, once encased, the hands are somehow transformed into “safe” instruments. This concept is fallacious, as gloves actually increase the potential for physically damaging fragile material through mishandling. For example, while gloves might provide added facility when handling bulky and/or weighty objects, ultra thin, lightweight paper is more difficult to handle safely with the sense of touch removed, a point we will expand upon shortly. Rather than an antidote or a defense against damage, any kind of glove worn by an already-clumsy reader can only serve to render them even more ham-fisted.

Further, simply issuing gloves to patrons fails to teach them proper care and handling procedures for books and paper artifacts both inside and outside special collections. Glove-clad users are likely to leave behind their sense of heightened awareness for artifacts along with their gloves when they exit the reading room, inculcating in them the false impression that institutional preservation standards are somehow different from those applicable to their own and other collections. Current reading room rules do little to instruct patrons about preferable types of handling practices. It is important that staff and readers be educated about proper handling protocols for bound materials, as well as for unbound letters, documents, newspapers, maps, and other graphic works, especially large or folded examples. We must accept that the risk of handling any object is relatively high and take appropriate measures to reduce that risk through instruction and example, but not, we submit, through the routine use of gloves. 


The children should be required to make a show of clean hands before being allowed to handle the books, and in order to facilitate this a lavatory is quite necessary adjunct to the room (Dousman 1896, 408).

During the past five hundred years, the skin-tight glove has largely been an accoutrement of decorative rather than having a pragmatic function (National Association of Leather Glove Manufacturers 1948). Manufactured from kidskin, satin, or velvet, gloves worn by the gentry served as a costume of status. Rising out of this tradition, “upstairs” servants were often visually demarcated from their “downstairs” colleagues through dress. They were prepared for social intercourse through attire that included white linen or cotton gloves to provide evidence of appropriate standards of deportment. This perception of aseptic apparel runs deep in the Western psyche, and for centuries, white-gloved military inspections have symbolized an order of cleanliness approaching that of godliness. Even Mickey Mouse, that lovable anthropomorphized rodent, was raised to heretofore unprecedented heights of social acceptance by the simple addition of neat togs and a pair of white gloves. Consider the psychologically ambiguous messages actually conveyed when visitors to special collections are uniformly required to wear badly fitting, cotton whites! 

In attempting to achieve cleanliness in the reading room, both curators and patrons have lost sight of the fact that rare books and documents never arrive in special collections untouched by human hands. Quite the contrary. Prior to machines superceding most hand-processes in bookmaking, there were innumerable occasions for “unwashed multitudes” to come into direct contact with books and paper artifacts now so reverently sequestered. For example, paper sorters and graders (typically low-paid women) were among the first people to handle freshly finished sheets of pristine paper made from recycled rags. After curing in the mill, these sheets were counted into quires or reams, wrapped by a warehouse worker, and sent off to the printer or stationer. 

At the printing office, the paper was traditionally dampened by a printer’s devil (usually a teenaged boy) before being picked up, sheet by sheet, for printing and then returned to a pile to await the verso impression. Once printing was completed, the sheets were hung up to dry. Inspection, collation, and folding in preparation for hand sewing or distribution; all require substantial amounts of human contact. The bookseller’s clientele, including the book’s eventual owner, may have perused the text sheet by sheet numerous times. Later, it is not difficult to imagine the owner’s family and friends repeatedly riffling through the pages. And beyond that, most likely generations of antiquarian booksellers, customers, owners, and their friends all enjoyed the visual and tactile pleasures of reading the volume in a laissez-faire atmosphere of entertainment or necessity. 

As for manuscript documents, a private letter writer would casually hold down or lean on a fresh sheet of paper when writing to a loved one, while legal and business clerks drafted correspondence, kept records, and tallied accounts in ledgers stored in less-than-sanitary settings (the term “sanitation” itself did not enter our vocabulary until 1848). The recipients of these letters and documents read them, sometimes by candlelight or the glow of an open, often smoky, coal fire and then folded and stored them in wooden cubbyholes, desk drawers, or, perhaps neatly bundled and tied with a ribbon, in hope chests. 

Yet, while these practices occurred extensively in all parts of the world over many hundreds of years, there is little evidence that repeated contact with human skin has appreciably deteriorated the historic paper. Granted, perusal through some centuries-old manuscript books and documents (especially parchment-borne) can yield stunning examples of yellowed or dirty, obviously often-handled margins. But given the eras from which they come—wood or coal fires, sooty rooms, dusty surfaces, and candle-light illumination, all interwoven with less-than-ideal hygienic practices—can one expect less? At the same time, there are far more examples of nearly pristine books, letters, and documents, hundreds of years old, that exhibit little physical evidence of human touch, even though we can be assured they have been generously handled over time. Compared with the destructive effects of air pollution, heat, light, poor storage conditions, repeated folding, and internal acidity, the chemical deterioration caused by paper’s contact with bare skin is imperceptible. In fact, when was the last time you saw a fingerprint on any piece of paper?

Books and documents making up contemporary special collections have successfully survived all ills prior to being sequestered within their environmentally-controlled storage conditions. Further, the number of times any single piece within the collection will be handled from this point forward is infinitesimal compared with the amount of perusing it has probably received prior to becoming part of our “cultural heritage.” Yes, such damage is cumulative, but by simply looking at often-handled materials, it is clear that paper—protected in large part by its buffering surface sizing—has effectively accommodated the impact of the bare-handed reading. Given that legacy, does it not seem rather elitist to deny the occasional patron or member of the curatorial staff the same tactile familiarity experienced for millennia so freely by the highest and lowest in society? 

For the few items in any collection that routinely attract a disproportionate amount of patron use, it is reasonable to implement a higher level of control than with lesser-used materials. Polyester sleeves, book cradles, and custom boxes can effectively help safeguard these frequently viewed artifacts, and surrogates such as microfilm, photocopies, or digital images can be created to accommodate above average user attention. 

In any case, the institution’s handling policy should require all who handle the collection to wash their hands periodically. While some may perceive this genuine concession toward cleanliness as a minor inconvenience, we suggest that, over time, it will become equated with universal norms of hygiene and public health care (Kihlstrom, 2000). 

In addition to creating a truly cleaner environment, it is highly advantageous for patrons and staff to retain full haptic control of the material they handle and manipulate. This increased level of tactile awareness will serve as an object lesson in collection use applicable to both public and private collections, thus better ensuring that all material culture is handled safely. 


And when I had touched the letter, I felt, in Tennyson’s words, that the dead man had touched me from the past: I have made my life among “Those fallen leaves which keep their green / The noble letters of the dead” (Byatt 1991, 115).

Humans all share five senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste—to interpret the environment around us. While these senses normally work in concert to add richness and depth to our immediate perceptions, arguably the most important in relation to reading paper-based artifacts are sight and touch. Tactile interaction with the physicality of paper helps provide essential and complementary information arising from the evidence “at hand.” To the trained observer, this includes historical insights into the creators and perusers of the diverse body of material, including the periods in which the artifacts were produced. 

Muffling haptic sensations through glove-use obscures one’s perceptions about paper, and by extension, the object as a whole. In a mechanical sense, the ability to feel the thickness and pliability of a sheet of paper is obfuscated, making it impossible, for example, to determine how many leaves are being handled at any one moment. Inadvertently gathering up two or three pages at once is common when the sensation of touch is impaired, resulting in clumsy fumbling to separate the leaves, and hampered by the awkward constraints of the white cotton glove with its bulky inseam running up the inside of the thumb. Gloves also impair the reader’s ability to judge how much manipulation or pressure is required to perform the otherwise simple task of turning a page or separating the leaves, especially at the edges where paper is often more degraded and brittle, due largely to oxidation and absorption of gaseous pollutants. Catching the loosely woven fabric of the glove on tiny irregularities, a crumpled edge, or an existing tear inevitably leads to unintended rips and tears of paper or binding material, made all the more frustrating because every day we handle similar objects effortlessly without wearing gloves.

Try this experiment to ascertain how little you can glean about paper while wearing gloves. Shut your eyes and, with your gloved palms facing upward, have someone place very different types of paper on each of your upturned hands. Because it is possible that you will not even be able to recognize that you are now holding the papers, have the person help you grasp the leaves between your thumb and fingers. It is unlikely you will be able to identify a single characteristic to differentiate between the two sheets except, possibly, their respective weights. With your eyes still closed, try the same test with bare hands.

Your experience will likely be consistent with the results of research conducted to better understand the human sense of touch. In one experiment, for example, subjects were prevented from seeing a series of common household objects and were asked to identify them, in some cases while wearing gloves and, in other cases, without. The researchers found, on average, that 58% of the responses were correct when subjects used their bare hand to identify objects (such as a stapler, a hammer, and an ice cube tray), while only 27% correctly identified the same objects with gloved hands. One conclusion arising from this study, and pertinent to the present article, is that “information provided by cutaneous sensing of surface properties contributes to the identification of real objects” (Klatzky et al. 1993, 175). 

In a more recent sensory deprivation study, subjects’ fingertips were placed on a sliding object (like a flat computer mouse), and they were asked to determine—again, based solely on the sense of touch—whether this gliding object was traveling horizontally over a bump or a hole. Due to its inertia, subjects always sensed that the sliding object was traveling over a bump, regardless of whether the surface contour beneath was indeed a bump, a hole, or a flat plane (Flanagan and Lederman 2001). This difficulty in accurately determining surface characteristics when feeling in the hands is impaired, this time by an obstructing barrier, also has bearing on the present argument, as misperceptions about spatial relationships account for the increased propensity to incrementally damage paper when gloves are worn.

Gloves obscure nearly all perception of paper as a material. Their intermediary function obliterates information about surface characteristics such as texture, e.g., whether a sheet is wove or laid, and most critically, knowledge of the sheet’s condition that would otherwise be communicated intuitively through contact with the bare skin. It is for this reason that book and paper conservators do not wear gloves when examining or treating objects. 

Without belaboring the physical impossibility of performing a conservation treatment while wearing gloves, judgments about an object’s fragility would be seriously hampered if the evaluator relied solely on visual examination. For example, there are many awful looking, nineteenth-century book papers that have discolored dramatically to a grayish-brown in color—often due to alum-rosin sizing deterioration—that remain reasonably flexible. Consequently, reliance on visual cues alone might unnecessarily subject this chemically changed, but physically acceptable, book paper to treatment steps such as washing, acid neutralization, alkaline buffering, and resizing that would be more appropriately reserved for really degraded material.

Handling physically damaged, fragile paper can be extremely difficult, even for trained professionals working bare-handed. It makes little sense, therefore, to categorically insist that readers of all experience levels wear gloves—relegating everyone to a state of diminished tactile sensitivity—before allowing them to examine our greatest cultural treasures! This illogical scenario currently contributes not only to paper and binding damage, but also deadens the readers’ aesthetic experience and intellectual grasp of the object’s diverse physical characteristics—texture, thickness, flexibility, and condition—thus depriving them of an important tactile experience. 


Fouquet, a learned book collector of France, used to keep a pile of white gloves in the anti-room of his library, and no visitor was allowed to cross the threshold, or to handle a book without putting on a pair, lest he should soil the precious volumes with naked hands. Such a refinement of care to keep books immaculate is not to be expected in this age of the world; and yet, a librarian who respects his calling is often tempted to wish that there were some means of compelling people to be more careful about books than they are (Spofford 1905, 116).2

According to Nishimura (2003), the donning of textile gloves for preservation purposes probably originated in the nineteenth century with photographers who wished, correctly, to prevent fingerprints from marring their negatives. A search through the early book and paper conservation literature, however, reveals no mention of gloves, suggesting that their use—and certainly their wide acceptance by libraries and archives—is a relatively recent occurrence (Banks 1978; Cunha and Cunha 1971–72, 1983; Greenfield 1983; Horton 1967; Lydenberg and Archer 1960; Morrow and Schoenly 1979; Swartzburg 1980, 1983). As recently as 1986, Merrily Smith, in her very thorough paper on library care and handling practices presented the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) conference in Vienna, made no mention of glove-use in libraries (Smith 1987). At the same conference, Hendriks advised that “unsleeved negatives and prints should be handled only with protective lintless cotton or nylon gloves” (Hendriks 1987, 63). 

Lacking evidence to the contrary, it appears that cotton glove-use spread from the field of photography and photographic conservation to rare book and archives collections and reading rooms in the last decade of the twentieth century, making the practice only about two decades old at this writing. This adaptation was no doubt driven by the good intentions of some curators with ready access to archival supply catalogues in which vendors increasingly represented glove-use as a standard component of library and archival practice. A wide variety of gloves continue to be available today from most archival suppliers, including washable, white cotton and nylon gloves in a one-size-fits-all ambidextrous style, another cotton glove that includes rubber dots on the fingertips to assist in handling slippery objects, and the disposable vinyl and latex gloves in sizes S-M-L that have become ubiquitous in the health care professions in the past several years. 

While many curators remain enamored of glove-use in special collections reading rooms, others do not. An online discussion on this topic, which occurred in October 1999 on the special collections site, ExLibris (http://www.colby.edu/~zechandl/), revealed many curators and book aficionados strongly oppose glove-use. A few comments thrown down with the gauntlet during that exchange include:

I require my readers NEVER to wear gloves of any kind, except when handling photographs. Where is the logic in making the nice people wear an ill-fitting thing which makes them more clumsy and reduces their sense of touch? —Martin Antonetti, Curator of Rare Books, Neilson Library, Smith College (Antonetti, 1999).

Readers are much more likely to damage books and other printed material wearing gloves than not. —Terry Belanger, University Professor and Honorary Curator of Special Collections, Book Arts Press and Rare Book School, University of Virginia (Belanger, 1999).

Cotton [gloves] can snag on fragile pages…Besides, bare hands are much easier to keep clean. We require all patrons to wash their hands before handling materials, and make sure they know we’re washing our own as well. —Elizabeth E. Fuller, Librarian, Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia (Fuller, 1999).


A wash-room was provided. The little urchins were at first compelled and then allowed to wash before coming into the library. We say allowed, for they soon ceased to regard it as an imposition and came to look upon it as a privilege—as great fun, in fact (Anonymous 1890, 260).

Requiring patrons to wear apparel that tacitly divorces them from the material they are handling is not simply an issue of preservation, even if this practice could be legitimately defended. It also involves questions of diminishing the reader’s aesthetic framework by reducing their appreciation for once-common artifacts as objects and displacing that model with the colorless concept that artifacts are merely supports for information. As Western society becomes increasingly disengaged from historical hand and machine crafts, people will be increasingly alienated from the unique, physical attributes of material culture. Maintaining a physical connection to artifacts helps both patron and curator retain a connection to the peoples and cultures that produced and used this material on a daily basis; historical “stuff” is implicitly encoded with links to the past.

This aesthetic separation is increasingly enhanced by the growing dominance of virtual experiences that may displace the public’s interest in and support for institutions that preserve original material. As guardians of the historical record, special collections librarians, archivists, and curators should be aware that curbing readers’ positive experiences may ultimately lead to fewer visits from people who will come to be satisfied with facsimiles, undermining the institution’s raison d’etre. The growing digital environment already eliminates many of the requirements for gaining access to cultural treasures that predominated only five years ago, via exposure to “virtual” artifacts. 

Instead of systematically restricting the people we profess to serve, professional librarians and archivists should consider the benefits that arise from enriching the patron’s experience by literally putting them “in touch” with their multi-dimensional heritage. Policies mandating physical detachment—especially if glove-use is exposed as a false preservation panacea—merely present patrons with reasons to doubt our professed commitment to service. 


Don’t handle books with dirty fingers. Wash your hands (Dewey 1900, 350).3

Simply requiring patrons to wash their hands with ordinary soap and water—rubbing hands together vigorously for ten to fifteen seconds, scrubbing all skin surfaces, and thoroughly rinsing and drying (Abouzelof 1999)—before examining artifacts and periodically thereafter as they feel dirty would be adequate to safeguard books and archival collections. It would also begin the process of people equating their skin’s cleanliness with collections care. For this simple procedure to prove effective, the reading room needs to provide a convenient means for cleaning the hands. The obvious solution is to require patrons to wash their hands in the lavatory before they enter/reenter the reading room. Ideally, the installation of a small sink in closer proximity to the reading room for use by both patrons and staff would prove a more convenient alternative if the lavatory is located some distance away. 

A compromise to this recommendation is to provide inexpensive, disposable towelettes to patrons as the means of cleaning their hands without leaving the vicinity. Individually packaged towelettes can be purchased in quantities of 1000 for less than two cents apiece (U.S. dollars) from companies that distribute disposable janitorial supplies. One should avoid choosing products containing skin lotions, but an extensive array of products are available, many of which can be viewed in the Gallery of the Modern Moist Towelette Collecting website http://members.aol.com/moisttwl/. A “hand cleaning bar” containing a basket of prepackaged towelettes situated near a wastebasket could be set up in the front of most reading rooms, along with paper towels to remove any residual moisture left by the towelette. Required use of the products at this “bar” would be reinforced for readers if staff members were also to use it routinely. Additionally, it is recommended that hand-cleaning facility(s) be located in the closed stacks for use by staff members. 

If gloves need to be worn to protect the readers’ and/or staff members’ hands, the authors recommend the use of a non-latex, e.g., vinyl, unpowdered, sized glove.4 Tactile sensations will be removed, but the advantages of gloves to protect the hands from very dirty books or archival materials, etc., can, in special circumstances, outweigh the benefits of non-glove-use.

While enforcement of such policies will require ongoing education on the part of the staff to communicate the institution’s rationale to the reader, the public will begin to be involved in the process of preventing damage to the material they are using. In addition to this, it is imperative that staff and patrons receive thorough instruction on the care and handling of all kinds of collected materials they encounter. The time it takes to carry out such instruction is a reasonably small price to pay for eliminating problem patrons, who, for example, have been seen blithely running their fingers—gloved or ungloved—across illustrations or manuscript text pages, smudging dirt, smearing or removing friable media, or extending small tears. 


Blanket policies mandating that patrons and curators wear any kind of glove when handling archival and library materials need to be reexamined. It seems clear from the observation of many heavily used books that have been in contact with clean, bare hands, that routine handling does not cause chemical damage to paper. Certainly, conservators do not wear gloves when treating books or paper artifacts, except in those few instances where their hands need protection. White cotton gloves provide no guarantee of protecting books and paper from perspiration and dirt. Yet, the likelihood of physical damage to collection material is dramatically increased by their use because they dull the sense of touch. Further, glove-use deprives readers of the aesthetic pleasure of touching artifacts and, through that perception, knowing the same sensations experienced by our forebears. Implementing a universally observed, hand-cleaning policy is a reasonable and effective alternative to glove-use, and it follows the standard protocol employed by book and paper conservators when handling the very same material.

For decades, preservation and conservation professionals have been telling people what not to do, e.g., don’t use pressure-sensitive tape, don’t pull books off the shelf by the headcap, etc. At the end of the twentieth century, however, negative attitudes seemingly gave way to more proactive preservation policies that included glove-use for users. In reality, however, being asked to wear gloves actually means “don’t touch.” Keeping collections for future generations must include policies that invite positive, personal experiences for patrons. In a time of burgeoning virtual realities, it is crucial that bona fide interactions—actually feeling old materials—remain the purview of libraries and archives as caretakers of cultural heritage. Offering staff members and patrons facilities for hand-cleansing and training in proper handling (as well as the use of a good-quality magnifying glass), could go a long way toward defining special collections as a unique place providing an enhanced experience revolving around material culture.


Presumably, “their gloves” refers to those the readers were wearing as they entered the building.

2 Ainsworth R. Spofford was the Librarian of Congress from 1864–1897.

3  Melvil Dewey founded the American Library Journal (now the Library Journal) and was a two-term president of the American Library Association, 1890–1894.

4 Information about latex allergies can be found at the Latex Allergy Links website; information retrieved 5 August 2004 at http://latexallergylinks.tripod.com/


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Dr. Cathleen A. Baker taught paper conservation in SUNY College at Buffalo’s Art Conservation Department for fifteen years before retiring in 1993 to write By His Own Labor: The Biography of Dard Hunter (2000). She has also taught numerous conservation and preservation workshops in the United States and for ICCROM, as well as published articles on conservation/preservation decision-making, adhesives, alkaline solutions, and bleaching.

Randy Silverman is the Preservation Librarian at the University of Utah. He has worked in the field of book conservation for 26 years and holds a Masters Degree in Library Science. His professional interests include book history and the conservation of circulating collections. He is the author of 48 professional articles and book chapters and has presented 120 professional papers in the U.S., Canada, Czech Republic, England, France, Italy, and Trinidad. He teaches at the masters level in library school programs in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah.

Interview with Jeff Peachey from NTD Television

A couple of weeks ago, Shiwan Rong and her crew from New Tang Dynasty News interviewed and filmed me in my studio. I recounted how I entered the field of conservation, explained some of the differences between conservation and restoration, and demonstrated a few bookbinding techniques. It was interesting to see what made it into the final cut, and despite some quibbles, overall it presents a reasonably accurate summary of what I said., considering that a three hour interview was cut down to two minutes!

One of the first questions was something like “How does it feel to be a master craftsman in the dying art of book restoration?”. This allowed me to explain that first of all, I am not a master craftsman, though I suppose anyone can call themselves one. Secondly, I discussed the differences between restoration, conservation, and bookbinding. Finally, I argued that the study and importance of the material nature of the physical book is thriving, not dying, in a large part because we as a society are not dependent on books simply for textual information. All in all, I hope the interview can educate the general public a bit about books and book conservation.

The video is accompanied by a written article and still images:

Treasures from a well made book: NY book conservator saves books for the future.


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