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Having a Nose for Degraded Documents

A scientific 'sniff test' could aid museums and libraries in preserving their old works without damaging the actual documents.

Ever wondered why your grandfather's cherished, dog-eared copy of Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire smells like that? Or why the Declaration of Independence retains the unmistakable musk of 1776?

At long last, scientists have developed a "sniff test" to measure the telltale aroma of old books and irreplaceable historical documents. You know the smell — that "combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness," as the authors put it. Inhale and smell the Industrial Revolution!

In a recent edition of the American Chemical Society's journalAnalytical Chemistry, professor Matija Strlic and colleagues describe their development of a method to gauge the degradation of paper pages based on their distinctive smell. The nondestructive technique, called "material degradomics," could aid museums and libraries in preserving their old works without damaging the actual documents, the researchers say.

The smell of an old book, the study asserts, is caused by hundreds of volatile organic compounds that the paper releases into the air over time; those compounds also reveal changes in the paper's condition. Strlic's test was applied to "sniff" 72 historical papers from the 19th and 20th centuries; the documents contain rosin, pine tar and wood fiber, which are the materials that degrade quickest in old books. Binding and other media, including photographs, also contribute to the pace of a book's degradation.


So the next time you pick up that copy of the family Bible, take a whiff of Deuteronomy and smell the volatile organic compounds. You'll be glad you did.

The Cocktail Napkin appears at the back page of each issue of Miller-McCune magazine, highlighting current research that merits a raised eyebrow or a painful grin.

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