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