Tag Archives: MIP

Sniffing old books

I don’t know if it’s nano but this story about old books and their smell ‘speaks’ to me. Thanks to GrrlScientist for her May 1, 2012 posting about this interesting work on degradomics,

Every time I catch a whiff of that special old books smell, I am transported through time and space to the cool welcoming basement of The Strand Bookstore in New York City, where I spent many hot humid summer afternoons, searching for some used book I’ve never seen nor even heard of, or sitting on the cold concrete floor, reading. The smell of old books isn’t pleasant, exactly, but it is unmistakable — and powerfully evocative.

“A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness,” writes an international team of chemists from University College London (UCL) and the University of Ljubljana (UL) in Slovenia in their scientific paper ([Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old Books] doi:10.1021/ac9016049 [this paper is behind a paywall despite the fact the paper was published in 2009]).

Here’s an entertaining video about this work,

Not all old books are deteriorating and expelling gases. There are some very old books that are in pretty good condition. The problem arises with the paper production techniques of the 19th and 20th centuries. We put a lot of acid in our papers and that’s what’s breaking down the material. From GrrlScientist’s May 1, 2012 posting,

The one factor that speeds a book’s death more rapidly than any other is acidity: paper that is too acidic significantly decreases a book’s lifespan. These papers are cheap and easy to mass produce. This explains why a newspaper clipping left in the pages of a book creates an ugly orange-brown stain on the book’s pages. But books have also been printed on acidic paper. Many of the books now crowding onto shelves in used bookstores were published in the 19th and 20th centuries; yellowing books with brown spots and crackling bindings that were mass printed on cheap paper that was too acidic. These books are aging rapidly whilst much older books are still in good shape because the paper they were printed on was much purer.

The paper’s lead author, Matija Strlič, is a senior lecturer at the University College of London (UCL) and he has a research interest that I did not realize existed, Heritage Smells,

Research interests span multi-disciplinary research linked to cultural heritage. The focus of these efforts are the development of new scientific tools and methods of study of heritage materials, collections and their interactions with the environment. Among the pioneering contributions are the development of degradomics, use of Near Infrared Spectrometry with chemometric data analysis in heritage science, use of chemiluminometry for studies of degradation of organic heritage materials, and studies of emission and absorption of volatile degradation products in heritage collections. My current research interests include development and use of damage functions and integrated modeling of heritage collections.

Presently, Matija Strlic is the Principal Investigator of the UK AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage Programme project Collections Demography (2010-2013) and a Co-Investigator on Heritage Smells! (2010-2013).  He is also involved in  several other projects, including the EU projects POPART (2009-2012, “Preservation of plastic artefacts in museum collections”) and TEACH (2009-2011, “Technologies and tools to prioritize assessment and diagnosis of air pollution impact on immovable and movable cultural heritage”), and UK Technology Strategy Board-funded project Heritage Intelligence (2009-2011).
In the past few years he has been  involved in other large collaborative projects: coordination of SurveNIR (2005-2008, “Near Infrared Tool for Collection Surveying”), scientific coordination of Papylum (2001-2004, “Chemiluminescence – a novel tool in paper conservation studies”), and participation in PaperTreat (2005-2008, “Evaluation of mass deacidification processes”), InkCor (2002-2005, “Stabilisation of iron-gall ink containing paper”) and MIP (2002-2005, “Metals in paper”). He co-coordinated the 8th European Conference on Research for Protection, Conservation and Enhancement of Cultural Heritage, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 10-13 November 2008.

Our paper is crumbling, eh? That means song sheets with the notations from composers such as Beethoven, etc.; original editions of important books of literature and nonfiction; drawings and prints by important artists; and scientific and other research papers; in other words,  historical documents of all kinds will be disappearing unless researchers can find a solution to the problem.