The World Around Us

Chemicals in Our World

Why do old library books begin to smell after sitting on shelves for years?

The smell of old books is due to hundreds of volatile organic compounds that form from the slow degradation of the book’s paper and other materials used in its construction. Acetic acid (vinegar) and furfural (smells like almonds) are two common chemicals ascribed to the smell of old books. Scientists can analyze the volatile compounds to identify the materials used without having to destroy a part of the historical document.



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