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Old books’ smell reveal their condition

There is something lovable about the faint yet familiar smell of old books, which could also tell you about their condition, says a new study. Read on to know more.

india Updated: Nov 12, 2009 20:48 IST

There is something lovable about the faint yet familiar smell of old books, which could also tell you about their condition, says a new study.

Scientists have developed a new test that can measure the degradation of old books and precious historical documents on the basis of their aroma. The non-destructive “sniff” test could help libraries and museums preserve a range of prized paper-based objects, from the ravages of ageing.

Matija Strlic of the University College London, who led the study, noted that the well-known musty smell is the result of hundreds of so-called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into the air. “The aroma of an old book is familiar to every user of a traditional library,” the report notes. “It is the result of the several hundred VOCs off-gassing from paper and the object in general.”

The new technique — an approach called “material degradomics” — analyses the gases emitted by old books and documents without altering the documents themselves.

The scientists used it to “sniff” 72 historical papers from the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the papers contained rosin (pine tar) and wood fibre, which are the most rapidly degrading types of paper found in old books.

The scientists identified 15 VOCs that seem good candidates as markers to track the degradation of paper in order to optimise their preservation. The method also could help preserve other historic artefacts.

Conventional methods for analysing library and archival materials involve removing samples of the document and then testing them with traditional methods. But this approach involves damage to the document, says an UCL release.