UK: Smell holds preservation information

The smell of old books holds a lot more than the promise of a good read, thanks to British and Slovenian research into a new way of monitoring the decay of books. The scientists identified compounds that could be used to assess the condition of an old book by 'sniffing' its odour.

The team, led by Matija Strlic of University College London, described the smell of old books as a "combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness".

They said the smell was the result of several hundred "volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds" (VOCs) off-gassing from the books - and those gasses could be measured. The researchers found that the materials contained in different types of paper could be deducted by analysing the VOCs. They also found that VOCs provided information on paper condition and stability.

"While a destructive approach has been required in the development phase, we believe that this technique eventually can be used on individual paper documents or to survey large collections in a wholly non-destructive manner," the team wrote.

"Capture of VOCs in a sampling enclosure or in standing library stacks followed by degradomics data analysis could eventually be used to evaluate the type, present status of, and the future likely stability of paper-based historic documents."

The research noted that paper could last for thousands of years but that papers produced between 1850 and 1990 were not likely to survive more than 100-200 years because of their acidity.

The research was published in Analytical Chemistry.