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That musty smell may be the key to preserving old books

December 3, 2009 | 12:51 pm

The nose knows when it comes to detecting the condition of old books. A new study finds that the familiar musty smell old books give off may be a better way to tell their condition than traditional ways that typically destroy part of the document.

Iup2acncResearchers from the UK and Slovenia developed a new technique called "material degradomics," which examines the gasses old books and paper documents produce as they degrade. For the study they examined 72 19th and 20th century historic papers that included paper made with wood fiber, gelatin and rosin-sized papers and coated and uncoated papers, and identified 15 volatile organic compounds that act as degradation markers used to detect decaying paper. In the study the authors 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," which sounds like some wines we've had.

Among the compounds on the list were furfural (an industrial chemical compound stemming from agricultural byproducts), acetic acid (an organic acid), and products derived from lipid peroxidation, a process of cell damage caused when free radicals take electrons from cell membrane lipids.

Books are usually assessed for stability by removing samples of paper and then analyzing them with lab tools. But this process is less invasive, and may be used to help protect other antique artifacts.

The study appeared in a recent issue of the journal Analytical Chemistry.

-- Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Stefano Paltera / For the Times