Old book smell: Is there anything it can’t do?

Mmm... Old books...An international research team has devised a smell test that determines exactly how degraded the compounds in an old book are, and how best to counteract the decay without having to damage the book to take samples. The method is felicitously named “material degradomics”.

Lead researcher Dr. Matija Strlic from University College London’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage noticed that conservators often smelled the books to assess conservation needs. That gave her the idea for creating a smell test that would pinpoint the volatile compounds that are released as the paper ages and degrades.

The test employs gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to analyze the paper, binding, etc. and separate out the different compounds.

The team tested 72 historical papers from the 19th and 20th centuries – some of which they bought on eBay – and identified 15 compounds that were “reliable markers” of degradation.

“The aroma is made up of hundreds of compounds, but these 15 contain most of the information that we need,” said Dr Strlic.

Measuring the levels of these individual compounds made it possible to produce a “fingerprint” of each document’s condition.

Once they have that fingerprint, librarians and conservators can more accurately determine which books are in greatest danger of degradation. Knowing which compound is at what level will also help fine-tune the conservation process.

The system isn’t quite ready for primetime. Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry devices are still rather unwieldy and they use samples. Dr. Strlic is working on making a portable “material degradomics” machine which could easily be deployed by librarians to find out all kinds of things about a book, not just the compounds degrading on the pages, but also its age and what materials were used to make it.

5 thoughts on “Old book smell: Is there anything it can’t do?

  1. Perhaps dogs could be trained to sniff out books in imminent danger of dissolution. One bark for, “needs attention soon,” two for “pages may be turned one last time,” three for “this book is history.”

  2. I was thinking it’d be fun to be like those Chinese pollution sniffer-people…but with yummy book smell instead of CO2 emissions.

  3. I was just reading an article in Popular Science about using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry devices instead of dogs for sniffing out chemical compounds to detect bombs at airports, train stations, malls, and other public spaces.

    It, too, mentioned that current technology is too unwieldy for law-enforcement to carry around.

    It’s awesome to think that the motive for developing a smaller, more efficient device is not contained to just law-enforcement; but for preservation of historical documents as well!

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