Analyzing the Smell of an Old Book to Give It a Checkup

By Andrew Moseman | November 12, 2009 6:17 pm

old books220The nose knows when you’ve walked into a library or archive populated by books of a certain age: The distinctive musty smell of the old paper fills the halls and reading rooms. Now, for a study in Analytical Chemistry, a research team has analyzed the chemicals that combine to form the “old book smell,” and says that one day a book’s odor could tell scholars a lot about the tome’s history.

The international research team, led by Matija Strlic from University College London’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage, describes that smell as “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness. This unmistakable smell is as much part of the book as its contents,” they wrote in the journal article [BBC News]. The smell is a result of volatile organic compounds that are released as the paper ages.

After watching conservators smell the paper while investigating old books, Strlic applied a “sniff test” based on gas chromotography-mass spectrometry to sort out the chemicals mingling in the odors of 72 older documents. The researchers identified 15 organic compounds that made good markers to track the condition of books [Scientific American]. The system isn’t ready for librarians or conservators yet, but Strlic says he envisions a hand-held model they could use to analyze the age of a book, or what materials constitute its pages and binding, in a noninvasive way. Currently, age-testing a book usually requires snipping off pieces for testing.

The sooner the better, because books aren’t forever. Paper produced until about 1850 was made to last for millenniums. The development of new wood-pulping techniques in the middle of the 19th century and the use of rosin sizing reduced the longevity of paper. The acidity of paper made with these techniques causes them to degrade more quickly than the older papers — or newer ones made with different methods after 1990 [].

Related Content:
80beats: The DNA of Medieval Manuscripts May Reveal Their History
80beats: In Controversial Scent Lineups, A Dog’s Nose Picks Out the Perp
80beats: Ant’s Chemical Signal Tells Nest Mates, “I’m Not Dead Yet.”
The Intersection: On Books, in which DISCOVER blogger Sheril Kirshenbaum sings the praises of that old book smell.

Image: flickr / Guldfisken

  • Jockaira

    The whole point to books is the dissemination of information. What difference does it make to anyone but an OCD hoarder what happens to the book once the information is recorded elsewhere, especially when that information is duplicated electronically and is available to any person or library on an instant’s notice?

    Keep a few really good examples of the bookmaker’s art and technology, preserve them carefully for scientific study, and compost the rest in land dedicated to the rebirth of the vanished rain (and other) forests.

    Most of the books published today are not worth the paper they are printed on, but continue to make big bucks for publishers who have cornered the bookstalls and signed big-money contracts with forgettable authors. It’s a waste of trees. Electronic publishing makes sense for disposable dramas.

  • rob

    We would not have built the modern information society without books. Today, every day, I refer to books for information that I use to make the information infrastructure go. Online its just not as easy to find nor integrate, nor is it authorative.

    Furthermore, if online text was so revolutionary, why don’t people read books on their laptops already? Etexts have existed for 20 years and people barely touch them. Even short journal articles are invariably printed out for reading. No one can convince me that ereaders will be any better.

    This article reminds us that reading is a sensory experience as well as a intellectual one. I for one am never going to count out books, any more than I count out cotton garments, bicycles, or brown rice.

  • badnicolez

    @Jockaira – under your proposal, if the human race loses our technology, we should also lose a large portion of our knowledge base and mythology (fiction) a la the loss of the Library of Alexandria. If anything, we should keep several repositories of books, so in the event of a major catastrophe, we wouldn’t be sent back into the Dark Ages without any hope of recovering what was once discovered or created, but lost.

    By the way, most books published now are printed on paper from trees grown expressly for that purpose. No paper needed, no trees planted.

    Much of the point of books is entertainment, not the dissemination of information.

    Finally, there’s nothing like holding a real book in your hands to smell, touch and read – Heinlein definitely thought so.

  • http://- Phil Doran

    Sniffing an old book may not be such a good idea. The leather binding used to be cured with dog dirt, and there were people called “pure finders” who used to collect it from the London streets.

    Or perhaps after so long you could sniff it, but for heaven’s sake don’t taste it!

  • Jennifer Angela

    I´ve read that the internet has already managed to overtake newspapers regarding the consumption of news among citizens of the USA (frankly, it seems to be a world-wide tendency, when you talk to and observe others, you do gain that impression). Read all about it if you like on the following webpage:
    As for reading books online: I would certainly relish that kind of development (to read chapters of books and even whole books on my computer). Not as a replacement, but as an alternative option: I would love to be able to read books ALSO on my computer, where I can increase the font size to relax my eyes, alter font colour and style, the background,… in fact anything I like to create convenient and pleasant reading. I am not interested in abolishing books, as there is something reassuring about them. It might be merely the possibility of locating a certain page within seconds. Besides I also appreciate the transportability of books (I know you can do the same thing with your laptop, but if you lose your laptop you are going to have some real issues. If however you lose your book, you can purchase a new one in no time without suffering a personal loss). On the whole, I think it would improve the quality of books a lot, if they were available as hard disks too.

  • Jennifer Angela

    But at the same time abolishing books would cause a cultural catastrophe. Imagine people, who are unable to read anything that is NOT on a screen.


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