The Scent of Old Books: How Do You Describe It?

“The smell of books intrigues and inspires,” Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlic write in their research article, Smell of Heritage: a Framework for the Identification, Analysis and Archival of Historic Odours. They contend that smells, such as the scent of historic paper, are part of our cultural heritage and worthy of conservation and inclusion in museums. As they explain, citing guidelines by the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England: “the smells of a place are considered of value because they affect our experience of it. For this reason, they should be taken into account when defining the character of a historic area.”

To explore the identification and documentation of historic smells, the researchers studied the odor of old books, looking for ways to communicate how it smells. The sample book was Les Chardons du Baragan, published in 1928 and purchased from a second-hand bookstore in London. Study participants smelled an extract of this book as one of eight unidentified odors, which included “chocolate,” “coal fire,” “old inn,” “fish market,” “dirty linen,” “coffee,” and “HP sauce.”

Participants described the historic book smell in a variety of ways. The word “chocolate” was the most prevalent description. The next most common descriptions were “coffee,” “old,” “wood,” and “burnt.”

Meanwhile, participants chose the following words to describe the smell of Wren Library at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a historic library: woody, smoky, earthy, vanilla, musty, sweet, almond, pungent, medicinal, floral, fruity, green, rancid, bread, citrus, sour, and creamy.

The authors of the study connected this information to a chemical evaluation of the historic paper odor and created a odor wheel so that “untrained noses could identify an aroma from the description and gain information about the chemical causing the odour.”

I, with my “untrained nose,” have always loved the smell of old books, especially the earthy fragrance that permeated my undergraduate library. I described this aroma in my new adult novel, Two Lovely Berries (2014), like this:

I spent much of my time at Yale, probably too much of it, in Sterling Memorial Library, a grand building in need of no ivy, where the stacks led to well-hidden reading rooms that were empty enough for me to think or daydream without interruption. A faint musty scent hung in the air, the smell of tradition and scholarship; I wore it like a perfume.

Fond memories of that “faint musty scent” at the same alma mater aren’t the only similarities between Nora Daly’s fictional life and my real one, but it’s all I’m willing to admit.  😉

Sterling Memorial Library in New Haven, CT

________________________________
*Cecilia Bembibre & Matija Strlic, Smell of Heritage: A Framework for the Identification, Analysis and Archival of Historic Odours, Heritage Science (2017) (linked above).

**See also, The Quest to Better Describe the Scent of Old Books (Smithsonian.com)

21 thoughts on “The Scent of Old Books: How Do You Describe It?

  1. Ah, the smell of old books! What an interesting study and an interesting premise that the smells of things should be somehow conserved. I think there are some smells from historic times that I would rather not know about or experience!

    1. I like the idea of conserving historic smells, though I do question how they’re going to define what qualifies as “historic.” They discuss it a little bit in the article, using four sets of values identified by Historic England, including “association with a notable family, person, event, or movement.” Will they conserve the smells of marginalized groups and people? It might not be a “beautiful” smell from a “notable” family, but it might make the reality of oppression have more of an impact.

      By the way, I am very sensitive to smells, and while I do love the smell of books and libraries most of the time, my favorite smell in general is “unscented.” So, while I like the concept of conserving historic smells, I don’t know if I would visit an olfactory-oriented museum. It would overwhelm me.

      1. I hear you! I am pretty sensitive to smells too and unscented is also my favorite! There are some smells I tolerate better than others like books and “soft” earthy type smells. Anything that is sharp or floral, however, even if it isn’t strong, I am doomed.

  2. Oops and there was me thinking that the predominant smell was just going to be “old book, dusty smell” and certainly not chocolate. “Wood” “burnt” “Coffee” I can understand, but to be honest, an old library to me brings an image (and a smell) of dry-rot, damp, dust and decaying insects with the odd cadaver of dead mouse scents on the air… 🙂

    1. “…decaying insects with the odd cadaver of dead mouse scents on the air.” Ha! That’s true, though I prefer not to think about that when I’m at the library. 🙂

  3. Hmm, interesting study! I suppose it depends on where the old books have been stored. I grew up in an old English farmhouse and old houses in the UK can have problems with damp, thanks to the joys (!) of the English weather. ☔ If books get damp/mouldy, I don’t find the smell very nice — it’s quite musty.

    I actually like the smell of brand new books, especially hardback books. But old books are pretty good too. 🙂

    1. I like the musty smell of old books, but not if it’s too overpowering. That scent comes from the decomposition of the paper, but that’s a little different from visible mold. A moldy book would probably make me sneeze!

  4. What an interesting study! I also love the smell of books (who doesn’t?), but there’s especially something special about the smell of *old* books. I was reading an old one from the library just last week and my daughter and I were taking turns smelling it. 🙂 It’s also one of the wonderful things about a used books store – the new ones just don’t smell as good.

    1. Agreed! I love the smell of second-hand books. Your comment reminds me of a line from The Witches of Cambridge by Menna van Praag: “Secondhand books have a sense of history, a smell of a life well lived that their newly minted counterparts do not.”

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I didn’t spend much time in my law school library–too many fellow law students there–so I used the undergrad libraries, where no one knew me. I remember their smells too.

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s