Sticky fingers, or: do we need to revisit the gloves debate?

For quite some time, archivists, conservators and special collections staff have been telling people that they don’t need gloves to handle paper records. The wonderful Rebecca Goldman (@derangedescribe) even did a handy (pun intended) flow chart

Last night, at the Australian Society of Archivists WA Branch AGM, we learnt that the matter needs a lot more research. Professor Simon Lewis, of Curtin University, and his research students are involved in forensic chemistry research, and are looking more closely at paper and fingerprints, to see what they can determine.

Paper porosity is ideal for capturing some drugs; American dollars show up cocaine traces quite well, apparently.  Paper is also evidence itself, or rather a carrier of different sort of information, as archivists well know. In the forensics field, there has been a concentration on the authenticity of documents used to prove identity – a passport may well be authentic, but there may be questions about the documents used to obtain it, for example. Paper is also used as a carrier for some cost effective medical analytical tests.  Because of this, there is an increasing focus on paper as an area of research. Can they date paper, for example, to say when a document was created (turns out the answer, is , umm, not really, or, it’s quite tricky).

Paper responds to particular events in interesting ways. Bleaching and laser ablation to remove stains or colour leads to weakening of paper fibres. Light also changes paper, as we know. But there may be other things going on, within the paper. An Indiana based art museum identified a set of artworks created by Gustave Baumann, which they have in their collection. Baumann is known to have used turquoise inks to sign prints and artwork. Because they took photos of their collection when it was accessioned, they knew they had some turquoise signatures. However, when they went to retrieve the art for a display, despite being stored in the dark for a significant number of years, the ink signatures had disappeared. Something in the paper may have been interacting with the ink.

There’s been a bit of research into rag based papers and even early wood pulp papers, but not a lot, for example, on recycled papers. Simon and his team have recently received paper samples from the Shoalhaven paper mill when it closed, going back 50 years. The paper is well described and its storage conditions are known. This means that they can start looking at some different experiments with paper.

But they also need to find out about the things that interact with paper, like the turquoise inks, and those fingerprints. While they could find quite a lot of research on fingerprints, they discovered a bit of a gap in the literature – the way in which fingerprints interact with and affect or affected by paper. Indeed, when they started to look into it, they found that most of the material on the issue had been written by archivists, librarians and conservators, and about handling issues for cultural heritage materials. Suddenly, their research took on a whole new aspect.

Professor Lewis dates the gloves controversy to a 2005 paper by Baker and Silverman,  Misperceptions about white gloves. In the paper, it was argued that the majority of fingerprint residue was water, so little amino acid or fats remained to contaminate the paper. But it turns out, that is not strictly accurate.

National Archives of Australia, senior conservator, Prue McKay wrote about her experiments with paper and gloves in 2008. She found that bare hands did leave residue, but there was some doubt as to the effect of the marks, particularly on older papers. More recently, Terry Kent, a UK based forensics analyst, reported on the water content of fingerprints, again confirming that there were sufficient amino acids and fats to make a deposit. Apparently, tests conducted at Curtin show that amino acids migrate into the paper substrate and then bind to the paper. They are doing some continuing work to see how long fingerprint amino acids remain and, eventually, will try and find out what the effects are on the paper. They also looked at the fats, which can be both from secretions but also from things like soap, gels and hand creams.

The main result from the experiments so far show that fats and acids return to the skin very quickly, with around 5 minutes, after hand washing. However, the jury is still out on whether or not gloves should or should not be worn. Based on the research to date, I’m sticking with the no gloves policy until the other alternatives are fully investigated, although, if I know someone is a head scratcher or finger licker, I may reconsider.




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Archivist, historian, avid reader

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