Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2023 Issue

Books For The Living, or the Pedantic Habit of Wearing White Gloves

The New York Times made it clear in a recent article: “For Rare Book Librarians, It’s Gloves Off. Seriously.” This old debate whether librarians should handle old books with white gloves is coming back again. The article reads: “The glove thing,” Maria Fredericks, the director of conservation at the Morgan Library and Museum said when contacted about the matter, sounding slightly weary. “It just won’t die.” How many times have you watched a curator on TV, leafing through an old book with careful, almost slow motion gestures? The white gloves are sending a message: this is not ordinary stuff. This is almost a ritual, and only a happy few are entitled to it—please stay far, and admire us. Actually, most people wearing white gloves just do what they’ve been taught; and there’s no big deal. Yet, using white gloves can also be part of the bourgeois “entre soi” that surrounds old books. There’s a silent class war going on here. Old books are for the elite. Although many booksellers will introduce themselves as old books servitors “passing culture on to the next generation”, some are actually closer to old time courtesans, sniffing wealthy people’s pockets with servile smiles. For them, using white gloves is just a way to look more important.

 

I’ve seen people acting funny with books: a renowned librarian threw a rare $10,000 travel book from the 16th century on a table in front of me, as if it were a bag of chips—the horrid sound it made still haunts me at night! The next day, a bookseller brutally opened a book for me, cracking the back like you break someone’s neck—I stared at him in panic. He stared back, smiling casually. Old books must be handled with care, no doubt. But white gloves are just useless pedantic accessories. The article of the NY Times lists all the reasons why we shouldn’t wear them: they reduce your sense of touch, and might cause you to tear a page, smear pigments or even drop the book. They attract dirt, make you sweat and generate moisture (which is not good for books). At the end of the day, the best way to handle a rare book,” said Mark Dimunation, the longtime head of the rare books and special collections division at the Library of Congress, “is with clean hands and caution.”

 

These are all the “good” reason. But there’s another one—the best one, in my humble opinion. Actually, I’ve never needed any other. We might have the duty to pass these books on to the future generations, but they are for the living. We are the ones who can smell, and touch them right now! The texture of their paper is a delight to the naked fingers; so are the almost imperceptible edges left by the press around the engravings for example. Weren’t these books designed on purpose? I mean as attractive as possible with smooth leather bindings and golden backs? No detail was spared to make you desire them. And we should touch them with gloves? Reading an old book is a sensorial experience. These books come from far, and they must be passed on, yes; but they must be kept alive in the process. By “alive”, I don’t mean in perfect condition, but surrounded with human care. Without us, the living, they are but bits of leather and paper. Loving them might damage them? But what’s life, even of an old book, without love? As insipid an experience as handling an old book with white gloves.


Posted On: 2023-04-01 02:11
User Name: keeline

Like the arsenic green "poisonous" books, the article in the NY Times to discourage wearing white gloves is very old news. I was hearing about both in the 1990s. That they both create a sensation suggests that many are just not paying much attention to the book world.


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