Author: Public Record Office Victoria

Some of the paper records in our collection date back as far as the 1830s. When presented with old and delicate paper records in the Reading Room for the first time, you may be nervous about handling the documents. We have a useful “manual handling” sign on the counter which is a good place to start or seek a reminder about best practice, as is asking our Access Services Officers. The information below has been compiled to answer some of the most common questions we receive around handling records. 

How should I prepare for handling records?

Have clean and dry hands – ideally wash before and after visiting the Reading Room. When you are given the documents you wish to research, they may come in a plastic bag or cardboard box. Take care when removing documents from their package. 

How should I hold the record?

Support the record on a desk or in a cradle (like the one pictured below), and try to only touch the record when you need to move it or turn a page. Turn pages with care, do not lick your fingers, and try not to force open or fold pages. Don’t take notes on top of the records. You should also leave any staples or pins in place – if they are hindering your ability to read the records, speak to an Access Services Officer. 

photo of a bound volume in a cradle on a desk
Here we can see a bound volume sitting on a cradle in the Reading Room. You can also use optional weights, as pictured here, to keep pages open if needed.

Should I be wearing gloves when handling historic documents?

We don't insist researchers handle records with gloves. This may seem strange to those new to archival research. But what we’ve found is that, so long as your hands are clean, skin contact does not appreciably damage paper. On the flip side, gloves can actually reduce the sensitivity of fingers, meaning people are more likely to, for instance, crease corners when picking up a page to turn it. The material of the gloves can also be prone to catching on paper that has delicate edges and tear small pieces off.

An exception to this is photographs and negatives. You should always wear gloves when handling delicate negatives and prints. Ask the Access Services staff for gloves in this instance. Photograph and negative emulsions are far more sensitive to the chemicals in and on skin, and unlike paper, touching a photograph will leave a permanent mark.  

What should I do with the records once I’ve finished reading them?

Put all documents back in the order they came in and take care putting the records back into boxes or pouches. Return the documents to the Access Services staff at the main counter. 

Thank you to Libby Melzer from the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation for additional advice in relation to this article. 

Material in the Public Record Office Victoria archival collection contains words and descriptions that reflect attitudes and government policies at different times which may be insensitive and upsetting

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples should be aware the collection and website may contain images, voices and names of deceased persons.

PROV provides advice to researchers wishing to access, publish or re-use records about Aboriginal Peoples