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A new look at that old book smell

Posting in Science

Love that old book smell? Libraries consider it a ticking time bomb.

But now, a device that chemically analyzes the musty smell of a book’s decay could help librarians better preserve their aging collections.

The British Library is working with chemical detection company Owlstone Nanotech -- known for its bomb-detecting technology -- to quantify old book smell for their book preservation.

The library is testing the Lonestar Portable Analyzer, which the company says is easy for non-specialists to use and faster than other chemical techniques (such as gas chromatography-mass spectrometry).

More than 100 different compounds, including acids and alcohols, have been found in books and paper. The challenge is to identify and quantify the range of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by paper as it ages -- and then relate that data to the composition of the paper, and how it degrades.

Ultimately, a mechanical sniffer will be used to:

  • identify the types of fibers in a book's pages, as well as the mode and degree of degradation (for example, whether a book is undergoing acid hydrolysis or oxidation).
  • figure out if books made with acidic paper will release acids that could threaten nearby books printed on non-acidic paper.
  • explore the residue of past chemical treatment and acidic paper degradation.

The device could also be used to detect potato rot, melamine in milk, or scavenger chemicals in crude oil. And by the way, did you know one company has distilled the scent of printed paper into a perfume?

[Library Journal via PopSci]

Image by Maguis & David via Flickr

— By on February 24, 2013, 2:34 PM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure