I Love the Smell of Old Books in the Morning

I have just returned from visiting my son, his girlfriend, and my future grandchild in Prague. My girlfriend and I rented a car and did some touring, and one of the places we visited was the Benedictine Abbey in Melk, Austria. The building is a perfect example of religious ostentation, but the one thing they did very well was collect and preserve documents and books;, the oldest of which date to the 11th century. Their collection is very impressive.

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The display case in the centre holds books from the 14th and 15th century. A definite draw for a couple who are a librarian and a former book store owner.

With this experience fresh in my mind, I was intrigued by a post on the Guardian UK website that quoted a paper that explained that distinctive odour of old books.

Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old Books
Matija Strlič, Jacob Thomas, Tanja Trafela, Linda Cséfalvayová, Irena Kralj Cigić, Jana Kolar and May Cassar
Anal. Chem., 2009, 81 (20), pp 8617–8622
We successfully transferred and applied -omics concepts to the study of material degradation, in particular historic paper. The main volatile degradation products of paper, constituting the particular “smell of old books”, were determined using headspace analysis after a 24 h predegradation procedure. Using supervised and unsupervised methods of multivariate data analysis, we were able to quantitatively correlate volatile degradation products with properties important for the preservation of historic paper: rosin, lignin and carbonyl group content, degree of polymerization of cellulose, and paper acidity. On the basis of volatile degradic footprinting, we identified degradation markers for rosin and lignin in paper and investigated their effect on degradation. Apart from the known volatile paper degradation products acetic acid and furfural, we also put forward a number of other compounds of potential interest, most notably lipid peroxidation products. The nondestructive approach can be used for rapid identification of degraded historic objects on the basis of the volatile degradation products emitted by degrading paper.

The Guardian article gives the details:

Basically, a book is made of organic materials — a variety of different papers and inks, as well as glues and fibers used to bind the book together. These organic components react to heat, light and moisture in the environment and with the chemicals used to make the book itself. Specific odours are the result of the particular blend of volatile compounds released by the sum total of the book’s organic materials. These odours also include those contributed by outside influences encountered by the book during its life — influences that impart the familiar stench of old cigarettes or cigars that is often associated with old books, for example.
That old books smell is the smell of death.

Books produced before the mass production of paper are usually in better shape than those made in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Using acid in the paper making process results in cheaper paper, but reduces it’s lifespan. Paper made prior to this period was essentially a ‘purer’ product.

Of course, mould and mildew are separate from natural aging and and books deteriorating  due to these should be discarded as the spores can spread and damage other books in your collection.


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