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Old Book Smell Can Also Date A Book

February 22, 2012

I love the scent of old books.  Nothing can compare to stepping into an old book store and being surrounded by the scent of the volumes placed on the shelves.

Even new books can smell good.  More than one person can be spotted in a bookstore sniffing between the pages.

But what makes books so pleasant to smell, and even more so when they get older?

Scientists say that “old book smell” is more than just mustiness; it contains hints of grass and vanilla.  That’s because all the compounds used to make the book release distinctive odors as they break down. For example, lignin, which is present in all wood-based paper, is closely related to vanillin. As it breaks down, the lignin grants old books that faint vanilla scent.

It’s even possible to approximate the age of a book based on its smell. Chemists have identified 15 substances often present in books (known as VOC’s) that degrade (and therefore emit a gas) at a predictable rate.  The researcher behind the project, Matija Strlic of University College London’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage, was inspired to investigate when he saw a conservator sniffing paper to assess its quality. Chemist Lorraine Gibson has taken Strlic’s research further, and is working on a test to help experts date books and other paper materials based on the VOC breakdown.

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