'Smell of old books' offers clues to help preserve them

December 2, 2009
Old books give off an unmistakable, musty odor that scientists can use to assess the book's condition. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Scientists may not be able to tell a good book by its cover, but they now can tell the condition of an old book by its smell. In a report in ACS' Analytical Chemistry, a semi-monthly journal, they describe development of a new test that can measure the degradation of old books and precious historical documents based on their smell. The nondestructive "sniff" test could help libraries and museums preserve a range of prized paper-based objects, some of which are degrading rapidly due to advancing age, the scientists say.

Matija Strlic and colleagues note in the new study that the familiar musty smell of an old book, as readers leaf through the pages, is the result of hundreds of so-called (VOCs) released into the air from the paper. Those substances hold clues to the paper's condition, they say. Conventional methods for analyzing library and archival materials involve removing samples of the document and then testing them with traditional laboratory equipment. But this approach destroys part of the document.

The new technique, called "material degradomics," analyzes the gases emitted by old books and documents without altering the documents themselves. They used it to "sniff" 72 historical papers from the 19th and 20th centuries, including papers containing rosin (pine tar) and wood fiber, which are the most rapidly degrading paper types in old books. The scientists identified 15 VOCs that seem good candidates as markers to track the degradation of paper in order to optimize their preservation. The method also could help preserve other historic artifacts, they add.

More information: "Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old ", , http://pubs.acs.org/stoken/presspac/presspac/full/10.1021/ac9016049

Source: American Chemical Society (news : web)

Explore further: Preserving Library of Congress' treasures is goal of FSU researcher

Related Stories

An inexpensive 'dipstick' test for pesticides in foods

November 4, 2009

Scientists in Canada are reporting the development of a fast, inexpensive "dipstick" test to identify small amounts of pesticides that may exist in foods and beverages. Their paper-strip test is more practical than conventional ...

Recommended for you

The universe's most miraculous molecule

October 9, 2015

It's the second most abundant substance in the universe. It dissolves more materials than any other solvent. It stores incredible amounts of energy. Life as we know it would not be possible without it. And although it covers ...

New method facilitates research on fuel cell catalysts

October 8, 2015

While the cleaning of car exhausts is among the best known applications of catalytic processes, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Practically the entire chemical industry relies on catalytic reactions. Therefore, catalyst ...

Trio wins Nobel Prize for mapping how cells fix DNA damage

October 7, 2015

Tomas Lindahl was eating his breakfast in England on Wednesday when the call came—ostensibly, from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. It occurred to him that this might be a hoax, but then the caller started speaking ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.