November 22, 2017

Breaking Down That Old Book Smell

old damaged book closeup

I love old books by Rina
Attribution-ShareAlike License

U.K.-based company Owlstone Nanotech is known for its bomb-detecting technology. But now the firm is turning its technology to detecting the metaphorical ticking time bombs in the library. Owlstone’s Lonestar portable gas analyzer can detect the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which correlate with paper degradation.

Of course, so can the human nose—that old book smell got its name for a reason. And so can Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry. But Lonestar can do it earlier than the nose and, the company claims, quicker than the spectrometer “at the point of need,” as well as being easy for non-specialists to use. It can be used either in continuous sampling mode, to monitor a whole room, or to analyze a single book.

Owlstone is currently working with the British Library to identify and quantify the range of volatile organic compounds emitted by paper as it ages, and relate that data to the composition of the paper, and how it degrades. The Library is also investigating “how much of a threat acidic books are to their non-acidic neighbors.” The Heritage Smells Project, a similar collaboration between The University of Glasgow Library and researchers from the University of Strathclyde, is exploring the residue of past chemical treatment as well as acidic paper degradation.

The same product can also be used to detect potato rot, melamine in milk, scavenger chemicals in crude oil, and more—so when not analyzing its collection, an academic library could also circulate its Lonestar for use by other departments.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.



  1. Peggy DeMouthe says:

    Greetings; I think this article would be of interest to the readers of The Gold Leaf, the newsletter of the Hand Bookbinders of California. We have a small (about 250) but dedicated international readership. Would it be possible to obtain permission to reprint the article (with full credits of course)?
    Many thanks
    Peggy DeMouthe, Editor