Chemists Reveal What Makes Old Books Smell the Way they Do

Posted on April 21, 2012

The aroma of old books is unmistakable, especially to a book lover. So what creates that heady, specific aroma that bibliophiles love so? Online bookseller AbeBooks posted an interesting video that explains recent findings by research chemists in England. Richard explains that books are made up of organic matter which reacts with heat, light and moisture and -- most importantly of all -- the chemicals used in its production. It is this reaction which causes the unique used books smell. Chemists at University College, London's The Bartlett Centre for Sustainable Heritage conducted research into the chemical cause of the old book odor. They concluded that old books release hundreds of volatile compounds into the air. The lead chemist described the smell as a "combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness."

Acid is what makes books decay, which is why books created with paper with a lot of acid in it (most of the 19th and 20th century works) are decaying rapidly. Some books have lasted 500 years, because of the purity and quality of the paper used. The best way to store your books is in a smoke-free, cool, dry environment away from direct sunlight. Oh -- and never put a newspaper clipping in a book. The acid in the cheap newspaper accelerates decay. Take a look:

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