Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2017 Issue

A Study of Old Book Smell Is Being Conducted at the Morgan Library

38b5aa1e-d313-4b40-a092-a2ee5ec7f3c9

Pierpont Morgan's personal library (from the Morgan Library website).

An unusual study of old books and smells is taking place at the Morgan Library in New York, combining the library, students from the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation, and the company International Flavors and Fragrances. The students are placing a clear, bell-shaped device, with sensors at the top and an air hose running to the side, on top of old books and whatever else they want to sample. The samples are then taken to IFF where they will be analyzed in the months ahead.

 

They aren't sampling just any old books, or any location in the building. The work is being done in the personal library of J. Pierpont Morgan, the turn of the century extraordinarily wealthy banker, industrialist and philanthropist, who used some of that wealth to collect rare books. He left his library to the public when he died. That was over a century ago, but his personal library hasn't changed all that much since he left.

 

This study was recently reported in the art blog Hyperalleric with a follow-up from the New York Times. I must admit that after reading both articles, I'm not quite sure why they are doing this. It is certainly an esoteric study. The Times came closest to understanding the intent, noting that maybe it could be used to recreate the smells of the old library for an exhibit, to "experience the library in a different way." They quoted Christine Nelson, a curator at the library, with the mystical explanation, "When we started this, we didn’t really know where this would go, and we still don’t, quite; it’s still an experiment." Whatever the purpose, the smell of old books is distinctive and a magnet to book collectors. It is not a pleasant aroma on its own, but an associative one, like "new car" smell, mainly a byproduct of glue, vinyl, plastics, and lubricants, people love only because they associate it with new cars.

 

We should note that this is not the first study done on the smell of old books. A study was conducted and posted to Analytical Chemistry in 2009 entitled Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old Books. This one had more of a specific purpose – to help conservators preserve the old books under their care. Different books give off different odors depending on their paper and other elements of composition. These differences may not be easily recognizable to humans, who probably lump them all together as being the smell of old books. However, when instruments designed to calculate the chemical compositions of the VOC's (volatile organic compounds) are used to determine their precise make up, the composition of each book can be determined. This, in turn, allows conservators to determine the best course of action to preserve each particular book based on its precise composition.

 

The authors of the study, Matija Strlic, Jacob Thomas, Tanja Trafela, Linda Cséfalvayova´, Irena Kralj Cigic´, Jana Kolar, and May Cassar, described the smell as, "a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness." This sounds like wine-tasters language. The most important compounds and factors, they determined, are rosin, lignin and carbonyl group content, degree of polymerization of cellulose, and paper acidity. Around 1850, rosin replaced gelatin to make ink adhere to the paper. Aluminum sulfate was used to get the rosin to precipitate to the fibers. Aluminum sulfate is acidic, explaining the more rapid deterioration of paper common to post-1850 books.

 

For chemists seeking more detail about the literally hundreds of volatile and semi-volatile gasses given off by the old books, those most commonly found were acetic acid, benzaldehyde, 2,3-butanedione, butanol, decanal, 2,3-dihydrofuran, 2-ethylhexanol, furfural, hexadecane, hexanal, methoxyphenyloxime, nonanal, octanal, pentanal, and undecane.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>Aurora Australis.</i> Printed at the sign of 'The Penguins'; East Antarctica, 1908. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>South Polar Times.</i> 1st edition, limited issue. from the library of Michael Barne. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> General Washington's <i>Proceedings of a General Court Martial... of Major General Lee.</i> Philiadelphia, 1778. 100 copies printed for Congress. BOUND WITH: ...Court Martial... of St Clair and ...Schuyler. $25,000 to $35,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>The Voice of the People.</i> Boston, 1754. Rare pamphlet on the Excise Tax. Nathaniel Sparhawk's copy. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Autograph Letter Signed ("S.L. Clemens"), offering extensive hard-earned advice on writing, 5 pp, 1881. $30,000 to $50,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> After Fra Egnazio Danti. <i>L'Ultime Parti not:e nel Indie Occid:ntli" [The last known parts of the Western Indies].</i> Painted Map of California, Western Mexico, and Japan. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Ptolemaeus, Claudius. <i>Geographie opus nouissima...</i> 1513. The most important edition of Ptolemy, containing the Admiral's Map. $250,000 to $350,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> De Arellano, Don Alonso. Manuscript, his <i>"Relación mui singular y circunstanciada... Capitán del Patax San Lucas,"</i> manuscript copy from the Sir Thomas Phillips collection. $50,000 to $80,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Purchas, Samuel. <i>Purchas his Pilgrimes.</i> First edition. With John Simth's engraved map of Virginia. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Lewis, Meriwether. Contemporary manuscript true copy of his final power of attorney, 1809. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practiced at Boston in North America.</i> Mezzotint. London, 1774. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>Scientific Base Ball Pitching: A Treatise on the Pitcher, Pitching, Origin and Philosophy of the Curve.</i> Chicago, 1897. $2,000 to $3,000
  • <center><b>Bibliothèque R. & B. L. VII :<br>XIXe siècle (1840–1898)<br>First editions – Reviews – Autograph letters and manuscripts<br>Auction in association with Binoche & Giquello on October 9th.</b></center>
    <b>Bibliothèque R. & B. L. VII, Oct. 9:</b> LAUTRÉAMONT. <i>Les Chants de Maldoror.</i> 1869. First edition, unbound, one of the rare copies dated 1869. €100 000 to €150 000
    <b>Bibliothèque R. & B. L. VII, Oct. 9:</b> PAUL VERLAINE. Poème saturnien. March 31st -June 1st, 1885. Autograph poem signed and illustrated. €12 000 to €15 000
    <b>Bibliothèque R. & B. L. VII, Oct. 9:</b> STÉPHANE MALLARMÉ. <i>L’Après-midi d’un faune.</i> 1876. Inscribed to Paul Gauguin. €30 000 to €40 000
    <center><b>Bibliothèque R. & B. L. VII :<br>XIXe siècle (1840–1898)<br>First editions – Reviews – Autograph letters and manuscripts<br>Auction in association with Binoche & Giquello on October 9th.</b></center>
    <b>Bibliothèque R. & B. L. VII, Oct. 9:</b> CHARLES BAUDELAIRE. <i>[La Cloche fêlée,</i> 1851–1855.] Signed autograph manuscript of one of the poems of Les Fleurs du mal. €25 000 to<br>€35 000
    <b>Bibliothèque R. & B. L. VII, Oct. 9:</b> STÉPHANE MALLARMÉ. <i>Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe.</i> Circa 1889. Signed autograph manuscript inscribed to Edmund Gosse. €40 000 to €60 000
    <b>Bibliothèque R. & B. L. VII, Oct. 9:</b> GÉRARD DE NERVAL. Manuscrit autographe. 1855. Rare manuscript fragment of Aurelia with corrections. €20 000 to €30 000
    <center><b>Bibliothèque R. & B. L. VII :<br>XIXe siècle (1840–1898)<br>First editions – Reviews – Autograph letters and manuscripts<br>Auction in association with Binoche & Giquello on October 9th.</b></center>
    <b>Bibliothèque R. & B. L. VII, Oct. 9:</b> PAUL VERLAINE. <i>La Bonne chanson.</i> 1870. First edition. One of 20 copies on Hollande paper in a mosaic binding by Noulhac. €15 000 to<br>€18 000
    <b>Bibliothèque R. & B. L. VII, Oct. 9:</b> ARTHUR RIMBAUD. Autograph letter to his sister, July 10, 1891. One of the most beautiful letters by Rimbaud, about his last moments, illustrated with drawings of his leg. €80 000 to €100 000
    <b>Bibliothèque R. & B. L. VII, Oct. 9:</b> GUSTAVE FLAUBERT. <i>Salammbô.</i> 1863. First edition. One of 25 copies on Hollande paper, this one inscribed to Théophile Gautier. €30 000 to<br>€40 000
    <center><b>Bibliothèque R. & B. L. VII :<br>XIXe siècle (1840–1898)<br>First editions – Reviews – Autograph letters and manuscripts<br>Auction in association with Binoche & Giquello on October 9th.</b></center>
    <b>Bibliothèque R. & B. L. VII, Oct. 9:</b> CHARLES BAUDELAIRE. <i>Les Fleurs du mal</i>. 1857. First edition, unbound.<br>€15 000 to €20 000
    <b>Bibliothèque R. & B. L. VII, Oct. 9:</b> CHARLES BAUDELAIRE. Barbey d’Aurevilly caricature. Original drawing (208 x 130 mm). 1865.<br>€20 000 to €30 000
    <b>Bibliothèque R. & B. L. VII, Oct. 9:</b> OSCAR WILDE. <i>The Ballad of Reading Goal by C.3.3.</i> 1898 First edition, publisher’s binding, one of 30 on Japan paper. €10 000 to €12 000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Franklin H. Brown, <i>State Sovereignty, National Union,</i> Chicago, 1860. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Thomas Paine, <i>The American Crisis,</i> Fishkill, NY, December 1776. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b><br>The Aitken Bible, Philadelphia, 1781. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francisco Loubayssin de Lamarca, probable first edition of the first novel set in the Spanish New World, Paris, 1617. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Juan de la Anunciación, <i>Sermonario en lengua mexicana,</i> first edition, first book of sermons in Nahuatl, Mexico, 1577. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Maturino Gilberti, <i>Thesoro spiritual en lengua de Mechuacá,</i> first edition, Mexico, 1558. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Commission of William O. Stoddard as secretary to the president, signed by Lincoln, Washington, 1861. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> <i>Clay and Frelinghuysen,</i> flag banner, circa 1844. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Daguerreotype of a man believed to be Frederick Granger Williams Smith, son of Joseph Smith, circa late 1850s. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> John C. Wolfe, <i>Portrait of Abraham Lincoln,</i> oil on board in period wooden frame, circa 1860s. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francis W. Winton, manuscript on pow-wows with indigenous Canadians, 1881. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Family letters from two young daguerreotype artists, 1826-79. $10,000 to $15,000.
  • <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. September 27, 2018</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Sep. 27:</b> Cartwright (George). <i>A Journal of Transactions and Events, during a Residence of nearly Sixteen Years on the Coast of Labrador...,</i> first edition, with A.L.s. from the author, 1792. £4,000 to £6,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Sep. 27:</b> Swift (Jonathan). <i>Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World,</i> 2 vol., first edition, Teerink's "A" edition, Printed for Benj. Motte, 1726. £15,000 to £20,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Sep. 27:</b> Fourier (Jean Baptiste Joseph). <i>Theorie Analytique de la Chaleur,</i> first edition, Paris, chez Firmin Didot, 1822. £6,000 to £8,000
    <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. September 27, 2018</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Sep. 27:</b> Boccaccio (Giovanni). <i>Genealogiae Deorum,</i> additions by Dominicus Silvester and Raphael Zovenzonius, Venice, Vindelinus de Spira, 1472. £10,000 to £15,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Sep. 27:</b> Mary I. Letter signed at the head "Marye the Quene" to Lord Paget, 1 page, 7th June 1556. The recall from exile of nine persons opposed to the Marian regime. £10,000 to £12,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Sep. 27:</b> Nelson (Horatio). Autograph Letter signed "Horatio Nelson" and written to Francis Drake, British Minister at Genoa, discussing the disposition of his "Cruizers" near Genoa. £6,000 to £8,000
    <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. September 27, 2018</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Sep. 27:</b> Darwin (Charles). Unpublished Autograph Letter signed to Walter Raleigh Browne, playing down his scientific knowledge of comparative anatomy, 1881. £6,000 to £8,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Sep. 27:</b> Murphew (J.). <i>The fair in an uproar, or, the dancing-doggs.</i> As they perform in Mr. Pinkeman's New Opera in Bartholomew Fair, 1707. £1,500 to £2,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Sep. 27:</b> Chaucer (Geoffrey). <i>The Workes,</i> by [Nicholas Hill for] Thomas Petit, dwellyng in Paules churche yarde at the sygne of the Maydens heed, 1550. £7,000 to £10,000
    <b>Forum Auctions: Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper. September 27, 2018</b>
    <b>Forum Auctions, Sep. 27:</b> Austen (Jane). <i>Emma: A Novel,</i> 3 vol., first edition, 1816. £7,000 to £10,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Sep. 27:</b> Greene (Graham). <i>Stamboul Train,</i> first edition, first issue, 1932. £8,000 to £12,000
    <b>Forum Auctions, Sep. 27:</b> Churchill.- Fearon (Percy Hutton) "Poy". “Eat More Beef,” pen and ink cartoon with shading in blue pencil, [July 1928]. £400 to £600

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions