A project at the British Library seeks to chemically analyze that old-book smell to help librarians determine what they need to do to preserve aging collections.
That old book smell may be loveable, but it’s also a sign of books’ decay. Now the British Library is working with a chemical detection company to quantify that smell for book preservation.
Ultimately, the library and company, Owlstone Nanotech, want to see if a mechanical sniffer is able to identify the types of fibers in a book’s pages, as well as the “mode and degree of degradation” of a book. Could a device detect, for example, whether a book is undergoing acid hydrolysis or oxidation? The library is also interested in whether books made with acidic paper release acids that affect nearby books printed on non-acidic paper.
The British Library is testing Owlstone Nanotech’s Lonestar Portable Analyzer, which Owlstone–a company known for its bomb-detecting technology–advertises as portable, easy for non-specialists to use and faster than other chemical techniques such as gas chromatography.
Much of the chemistry of the old book smell is already well known. A 2009 study characterized the scent as “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.” (Sexy.) One company has distilled it into a perfume. According to the British Library, “more than 100 different compounds, including acids, aldehydes, alcohols, ketones, alkanes and terpenes, have been identified in books and paper, so the challenge is to identify those which are most significant.”