Why Do Libraries Have That Smell?

Greg Friedler/Getty Images

Greg Friedler/Getty Images

Popular Science has the answer: The musty smell is most likely cellulose decay. Since the mid-19th century, when papermakers began using groundwood pulp in place of cotton or linen, most paper has contained an unstable compound called lignin, which breaks down into acids and makes paper very brittle. Since 2001, the Library of Congress has treated at least 250,000 books every year with magnesium oxide. The chemical deacidifies paper and slows decay.

Lorraine Gibson, a chemist at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland, runs a project called Heritage Smells that will identify decay in its earliest stages. She is working on a handheld mass spectrometer, a sort of artificial nose that locates the molecules that cause the musty smell.

Molecules move down a flight tube, and the movement through the tube helps identify the mass of the molecule. Once researchers have identified the molecules that speed decay, they can work to stop it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.