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Books, Books, books

Happy Winter Solstice!

On this, the shortest day of the year, what better way to celebrate the dark and cold by curling up with some good books? Well, to start you off we’ve got some cool science about books.

First, judging a book by its smell is not as crazy as it sounds, according to new research:

Scientists have developed a new test that can measure the condition of old books and precious historical documents on the basis of their aroma.

Perhaps you can’t judge a book by its cover, but there’s a wealth of information to be gleaned from its scent.

A new testing method can rapidly determine the condition of old books and documents by analyzing the bouquet of volatile organic compounds released by paper off-gassing. The technology promises to help conservators assess the condition of old works quickly, while not harming the documents.

“Paper emits more than 200 various compounds of which on the basis of our research we were able to pinpoint to 10 or 15 compounds that carry the most information about the composition of paper,” said Matija Strlie, lead researcher and senior lecturer at the Center for Sustainable Heritage at the University College London.

Strlie and his team surveyed the VOC emissions from 72 paper samples in different stages of decay. From those results, the researchers developed a series of scent markers for the structural stability of documents, books and other paper materials.

The familiar odors of old books, which Strlie’s study describes as “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla” varies depending on the chemical reactions and oxidation rates of paper ingredients, such as ash, cellulose, rosin and lignin.

The paper manufacturing era of each book can also reveals a lot about its condition.

“It’s really the technology revolution after 1850 that led to what we call ‘acid paper’ that degrades very rapidly,” Strlie told Discovery News. “Today, for books produced from 1890 to 1900, the pages are already very brittle.”

(Read the full article)


For those who enjoy looking at the pictures more than the words, a collection of artwork from those old 1950s science textbooks (download the PDF):

The textbooks written by Roy A. Gallant taught a generation of students that science could also be art. But research progresses and artistic methods evolve. So Wired New gave these mid-century classics a 21st-century update.

Click for full feature



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.

2 thoughts on “Books, Books, books

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