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Sunday, July 01, 2018

How we discovered three poisonous books in our university library | Popular Science

This article was originally featured on The Conversation.

"Arsenic and old manuscripts" inform Jakob Povl Holck, Research Librarian, and Kaare Lund Rasmussen, Associate Professor in Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy University of Southern Denmark.

One of the poisonous books.
Photo: SDU, Author provided

Some may remember the deadly book of Aristotle that plays a vital part in the plot of Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel The Name of the Rose. Poisoned by a mad Benedictine monk, the book wreaks havoc in a 14th-century Italian monastery, killing all readers who happen to lick their fingers when turning the toxic pages. Could something like this happen in reality? Poisoning by books?

Our recent research indicates so. We found that three rare books on various historical topics in the University of Southern Denmark’s library collection contain large concentrations of arsenic on their covers. The books come from the 16th and 17th centuries.

The poisonous qualities of these books were detected by conducting a series of X-ray fluorescence analyses (micro-XRF). This technology displays the chemical spectrum of a material by analysing the characteristic “secondary” radiation that is emitted from the material during a high-energy X-ray bombardment. Micro-XRF technology is widely used within the fields of archaeology and art, when investigating the chemical elements of pottery and paintings, for example...

Now, the library stores our three poisonous volumes in separate cardboard boxes with safety labels in a ventilated cabinet. We also plan on digitizing them to minimize physical handling. One wouldn’t expect a book to contain a poisonous substance. But it might. 

Source: Popular Science

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