Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A smell test to save old books

Paper is an enduring medium. Much of what we know about our history has stemmed from scrolls, scraps and pieces of parchment that have lasted millennia. But when exposed to the wrong conditions or made on the cheap, paper degrades quickly. Everyone can distinguish the smell of such a book, walking through a library or old book store you can often pick out the musty, earthen smell amidst the stacks.

A team of European researchers has found a way to capitalize on that pungent smell to help preserve and protect old books and historic documents. The team made use of physics based techniques like spectroscopy, gravimetrics (a complex way of determining mass), and a number of analytical chemistry techniques, to very precisely examine the way old books smell.

Not all documents can be protected like they were the Constitution, and eventually years of exposure to sunlight, humidity and heat cause the paper to out-gas several hundred different types of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as time takes its toll. VOCs are responsible for the way an old book smells and through their analysis the team found a way to precisely determine the condition and stability of paper.

This smell test can do away with more destructive tests that require cutting off pieces of precious works to determine the damage. By examining the organic compounds coming off the paper from a small distance away, the smell test lets the researchers know what steps need to be taken to save it. The technique can also save much needed time and resources. Simply going off smell, a librarian could determine which books are the worst off and focus their energy on those works first.

The article is actually pretty interesting for a scholarly journal article; you can read it here:

Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old Books

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