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Archives and Special Collections


Special Collections materials, due of their value, rarity or uniqueness, need special care when handling in order to preserve them for the future. Items are often fragile due to their age and can vary greatly in scale, format, material and condition. Our collections include rare books, archives, manuscripts, artefacts and prints. Here we look at how to carry, hold and handle these different types of materials in order to prepare you for using our collections in the Heritage Collections Reading Room.


  • Wash your hands with soap and water before handling materials to prevent transferring the oils from your skin onto the materials.
  • Keep your hands clean and dry - moisture can damage materials and smudge ink.
  • Avoid using alcohol hand gel and hand creams as these can damage materials.
  • No perfume - strong fragrances can cling to paper.
  • Be careful with nail varnish - the colour can easily transfer to paper.
  • Be mindful if wearing jewellery that could catch and tear materials, you may need to remove it before handling materials.

Tips to remember

  • As a general rule handle books/archives as little and as carefully as possible.
  • Take responsibility for the items you are handling - if you notice issues do something about it or report it to staff.
  • Ask for help or advise if you are unsure- we are happy to help!
  • Remember not to lick your fingers when leafing through books and papers!
  • When you become absorbed in your work it is easy to forget handling techniques - be mindful not to lean on the papers or books or to read books on your lap instead of the table.
  • Some of our materials may not look fragile or even very old but they could be irreplaceable - by following these handling guidelines you are helping us to preserve them for future researchers.

The working space

  • Make sure the working space is clean and tidy - no coffee stains, dirt or food and drink traces.
  • Keep the space clutter free to minimise the risk of accidental damage - only bring what you will need to work with.
  • No food, drink or chewing gum - take breaks away from the working area to avoid accidental spillage.
  • Use a soft 2B pencil with a slightly blunt tip for note taking, pens should not be used near the materials. Don't use a rubber to rub out any accidental marks on materials - this could cause more damage. You can also use a digital device for taking notes.

Retrievals/transporting materials

  • Make a risk assessment before retrieving or using material to minimise the risk of accidental damage.
  • Think ahead, ask someone to open doors for awkward sized objects.
  • Decide what supports may be needed for transporting the items.
  • Use a  trolley to carry multiple items or large/heavy items. 
  • Keep books flat if possible when transporting them.

When should you use gloves?

Readers often expect to be asked to wear a pair of white cotton gloves for handling our materials, whereas in fact these are not usually recommended. Wearing gloves can reduce sensitivity, making it harder to judge the condition of the item you’re handling and can increase the risk of damage.

White Cotton Gloves

Gloves can also pick up and transfer dirt and debris to other items, which is a particular problem with cotton gloves. We usually advise that clean, dry hands are better than wearing gloves although we would ask you to wear nitrile gloves for the following vulnerable material types:

  • Photographs, negatives, glass plate negatives and slides.
  • Delicate cloth such as silk.

For very fragile materials, Special Collections staff may also advise wearing gloves on a case-by-case basis.

Halyard Health Nitrile Gloves

Tools and equipment

Bone Folder Pointed

Bone file. This tool is used to carefully turn pages where we would not want to touch them, for example an illuminated manuscript where the delicate gold leaf could transfer to fingertips.

Close up on snake weight

Snake weights. These are used to restrain the leaves of books to hold them open while reading. They should be placed on the white spaces of the page, never over the text.

Book Display Pillow

Book pillow. These provide adjustable support for rare books. The pillows come in different sizes and can be moulded by hand to accommodate the preservation needs of different books.

Glass weights. These are useful to hold open maps or other rolled documents. The smooth finish with rounded edges will not damage the object on which they are placed.

Maps and scrolls

  • undefinedRolled items like maps will need to be unfurled carefully, two pairs of hands are often useful for large items.
  • Make sure you have plenty of space before you start - it can be difficult to know how large the item is going to be before you start unrolling.
  • Glass or soft leather weights are used to hold corners open and may be spaced along the edges to prevent the paper curling.
  • Only unroll as much as you need to see at one time.
  • Take care to align the edges when re-rolling.
  • Large maps can have a large, clear sheet of polyester placed over them before consulting.

Handling loose papers such as archive materials

  • undefinedTake care to replace documents into the correct files.
  • When handling loose material ensure it remains in the correct order. 
  • Be aware that the humidity of fingers can cause ink to smudge - avoid touching text.
  • Remember not to square papers on the table top - keep papers aligned as you turn them.
  • Turn loose pages by holding opposite corners of the paper.
  • Papers can usually rest flat on the table top without supports.
  • Don't remove any paperclips from pages.
  • Use acid-free paper strips of archive paper for place-marking.

Handling books


  • Hold and carry books from the fore edge, not the spine. The spine is most vulnerable to damage as it is the mechanical part of the book.
  • If you take a book from the shelves grasp it mid-spine with the covers between thumb and fingers, avoiding gripping the spine. Support the book from underneath if it's heavy.
  • If the book is shelved tightly between other books and you are unable to grip the cover, reach one hand behind the book and gently push the book forwards, grasping it with the other hand. Avoid pulling the book out by the top of the spine.
  • Books will need to be supported by cushions before being opened. The level of support needed is assessed on a case by case basis and will vary depending on the size, weight and condition of the book.
  • Visually asses the condition before opening the book - check how fragile the spine looks. If the book is tied together with cotton tape it is a good clue that the spine is damaged. Check the bindings are reasonably robust and that the text block is not in danger of permanently separating.
  • Be aware of red rot in leather bound books, the powder can mark pages.
  • Find a suitable size cushion to rest your book, use your hands to form a dip down the centre to rest the spine. Carefully open the book.
  • Listen to the book - does it creak when you open it? The binding may be tight and you may not be able to open the pages fully.
  • Most books won't open flat, adjust the height of the cushion supports to find an angle that avoids putting strain on the binding. A books can be set up at a comfortable 20º angle, with an opening not greater than 120º, the joints fully supported. Do not open books with tight bindings to a full 120º angle. As you progress through the volume, the supports can be adjusted to protect the book's vulnerable joints.
  • Avoid touching the text - use the white spaces on the paper to turn pages or rest weights.
  • If pages are fragile or made of parchment use a bone file to carefully turn the pages instead of your fingers.
  • If you need to mark a page use acid-free paper slips as bookmarks.

Using weights

  • undefinedWeights can be used to hold materials in place where pages do not naturally lie open.
  • Carefully rest snake weights over the corners of pages of books, only rest them on the white spaces of the page, avoiding any text.
  • Be especially careful to avoid resting weights over illuminations or gold leaf.
  • Glass or soft weights can be used to hold loose papers flat.
  • Avoid resting weights over any damaged or fragile areas.

Handling photographs

  • Use nitrile gloves when handling photographs, negatives, glass plate negatives and slides.
  • Never touch the emulsion surface of the print as it is vulnerable to fingerprints, scratches and marks.
  • Pick up photographs only from the edges to avoid touching the surface.
  • If the photographs are mounted in an album you may not need to wear gloves, as long as you can turn the pages without touching the photographs.
  • If the photographs are inside clear, polyester protective sleeves do not remove them.

Pendants and seals

Take particular care to support any items with wax seals or pendants when turning or unfolding documents. The seals are fragile and must not be knocked or have weight or pressure applied on them. Neither should they be allowed to hang off the edge of a work area.

Audio visual materials


  • For media using magnetic tape (cassettes, reel to reel tape, video etc.) handle tapes from the plastic case only, do not touch the spools.
  • Never touch the brown magnetic tape.
  • Keep tapes clear from strong magnetic fields e.g. mobile phones, speakers, motors, vacuum cleaners, television sets.
  • Ensure any playback equipment is clean and well maintained before use.
  • Allow material to acclimate from cold storage to room temperature before trying to play back.
  • Store played tapes without rewinding.
  • Ideally store all formats upright with cassettes on their long edge.

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