As stored books age they generate and release volatile organic compounds (VOCs). It has been shown that the release of certain emitted VOCs (such as furfural) is correlated to the extent of paper degradation in a book. The Lonestar portable gas analyzer can be used to detect VOCs associated with paper degradation and aid in the conservation of antique books, manuscripts and other paper based artifacts.
Everyone is familiar with the “old book smell” associated with antique volumes and secondhand book shops. The origin of the musty odor associated with old books is volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released as paper ages and degrades. Books produced between 1850 and 1990 degrade most quickly due to the high levels of acid present in papers used during this time period. The presence of particular VOCs (e.g. furfural (a product of cellulose and hemicellulose degradation), acetic acid, 2-ethylhexanol and hexadecane) are markers for the degradation of paper components cellulose and lignin. These species are are indicators of what condition a book is in and whether decay is taking place. A new field of research is growing around new methods for detecting degradation in books. Accurate monitoring of book repositories for degradation markers would allow earlier conservation of at risk books, and indicate when environmental factors are affecting the condition of stored books and other paper materials.
The smell of old books gives chemical information about their state of decay.
Owlstone are currently collaborating with the British Library and researchers at the University of Strathclyde to use Field Asymmetric Ion Mobility Spectrometry (FAIMS) to detect paper decay in old books. This research uses Lonestar, a portable gas analyzer that uses Owlstone’s proprietary FAIMS technology to detect and quantify a wide range of VOCs. It can be operated in either a continuous sampling mode to monitor a whole room or can be used to analyse the VOCs emitted by a single book. Lonestar has advantages over techniques such as Gas Chromatography - Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) because it easy to use by non-specialists and provides much faster analysis at the point of need. Lonestar will be of interest to conservators at libraries, museums, archives and other heritage sites where the ongoing monitoring of degradation markers is vital to protect inventories of fragile books, documents and other heritage objects.