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Smell of old books offers clues to help preserve them

world Updated: Dec 07, 2009 16:31 IST

The secret of preserving the old books is contained in the odour of their pages, scientists say. In a report in ACS' Analytical Chemistry, a semi-monthly journal, American researchers, led by Matija Strlic, described development of a new test that can measure the degradation of old books and precious historical documents based on their smell.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.

Strlic and colleagues noted that the familiar musty odour of an old book, as readers leaf through the pages, is the result of hundreds of so-called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into the air from the paper.

The chemicals that the pages release as they degrade, hold clues to the paper's condition. Such a thorough chemical understanding of the state of a book will help museums and libraries to identify the books and documents most in need of protection from further degradation.

The information could also be used to fine-tune preservation techniques. Conventional methods for analysing 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.