Literature of the English Country House: Gloves and the Archive

White gloves in the archive (or rather, their absence) have been a topic of debate on the Literature of the English Country House MOOC this week. Here Dr Amber Regis—Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Guest Educator on the MOOC—discusses the perils and pitfalls of ‘gloved’ encounters with the past.

“[S]crolls, folders and boxes upon long vistas of shelving.” (Press photograph from The National Archives)

In 2013 a new policy at The National Archives saw film and TV crews banned from using gloves when handling materials from the collection.

Staff and researchers at The National Archives had taken off and discarded their gloves years before. With very few exceptions—such as photographs, mounted prints and delicate bindings—it was decided that the disadvantages outweighed the advantages. Gloves make it difficult to handle material appropriately and safely; you are far more likely to tear or drop an item. Gloves also get dirty, and stay dirty, whereas bare hands can be washed and dried as often as required.

But gloves, particularly white gloves, have persisted on film and TV. They have come to form part of the theatre of the archive on-screen. We expect our players—whether archivist, historian or celebrity presenter—to re-enact familiar roles and performances: scrolls, folders and boxes upon long vistas of shelving; the gloved hand that opens and presents a precious item, offering it up to the gaze of camera and audience.

But we should be cautious, and reflect upon how these expectations are forged by a filmic or televisual iconography that threatens the very material it appears to celebrate.


 

That film and TV crews were permitted (for a time, at least) to wear gloves after the practice was discontinued speaks to our desire for the archive as a rarefied or sacred space: the archive as a closed space difficult to access; the archive as a repository for items that need to be removed from human touch, despite being part of human history.

But archives are not closed, and this material deserves our careful touch. Archival professionals work hard to conserve and maintain their collections so they can be used. So why not visit your local archive or records office, or your local university’s special collections, to find out more about their work and the collections they hold?


 

White gloves and “the theatre of the archive”. (Press photograph from The National Archives)

Here at the University of Sheffield, the Centre for Archival Practices works to promote access to collections, and in collaboration with Special Collections and Sheffield Archives, has recently held an event dedicated to ‘Opening the Archive’. Treasure from the two collections was out on display and Sheffield residents were invited to hold, touch, read and view these items. You can read more about the day, and see some photographs, over at the Centre’s website.

As part of the first week on the Literature of the English Country House MOOC, Jacky Hodgson invites learners to visit the University Library’s Special Collections, which are open to the public by appointment. She also describes their ongoing plans to digitise material. This will ‘open up’ the archive still further, granting access to new and broader audiences. But these encounters will be virtual; we will not touch the digital surrogate in quite the same way.

And so, in a digital age, the work of archival professionals is all the more important. For it is their continued care of non-digital artefacts that holds out the promise of ungloved encounters—of touching the past.

 


 

See also:

Hannah Clare, ‘The gloves are off’, The National Archives Blog.
What is the policy of The National Archives on wearing gloves to handle documents?’, The National Archives.
Julian Harrison, ‘White Gloves or Not White Gloves’, The British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog.
Jane Pimlott, ‘The use of white cotton gloves for handling collection items’, The British Library.

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