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Here Is the Chemical Recipe For ‘Old Book Smell’

A dash of ‘old room’, a hint of 2.4-dimethylpentane, and a sprinkle of mothballed acetic acid.
© National Trust / James Dobson

When Cecilia Bembibre flicked through the visitors' book in London's St Paul's Cathedral library, she immediately noticed how many of the visitors mentioned the smell of old books.

"So many people were experiencing the library as a whole, equating the smell of books with the smell of knowledge," Bembibre, a researcher at the University College of London's Institute for Sustainable Heritage, told Motherboard in a phone conversation. "People literally say you can inhale the knowledge, which is a very interesting thought."


The smell of old books is a well-trodden romantic trope, but is our love affair with the aroma of tomes so strong as to justify creating an archive? Bembibre thinks so, enough so that she's now helped develop a 'Historic Book Odor Wheel' to document and archive the smells associated with old books, a variation of a tool commonly used by perfumers or winemakers.

The concept is presented in 'Smell of heritage: a framework for the identification, analysis and archival of historic odors', a new paper published in the open access journal Heritage Science, detailing Bembibre and colleagues' work.

"We had evidence that a lot of people value the smell of books,

"We had evidence that a lot of people value the smell of books, and the sensory experience that comes from holding a physical book and entering a library. No research had been done in this area," Bembibre told Motherboard. "Our experience of many cultural objects tends to be visual. So when we look at a painting in a museum or another historic object we tend to just look. With books, and the spaces that hold the books like historic libraries, our experience is really on so many different levels."

The researchers asked visitors to St Paul's Cathedral's Dean and Chapter library to verbally describe characterize the book scents they were whiffing. Then, the researchers took these descriptions (such as "vinegar'), analyzed the chemical composition of the corresponding pages in the books, and matched to the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) contained therein (such as acetic acid). VOCs are chemicals that evaporate at low temperatures, many of which we perceive as scents or odors.


Identifying and describing smells using GC-sniffing in a lab.

With the odor wheel now assembled, the task remains to work out exactly how the smell of old books will be archived. I asked Bembibre if she could envisage some kind of public access smell library in the future, or whether aroma descriptions will just be written down and stored.

"The idea of an archive of heritage smells, so smells that hold cultural value, is very attractive and we are developing it," she said. "But the big question is what do we do to preserve it? Do we preserve just the physical smell, like a sample, or do you want to preserve the experience?" she said.

Bembibre said the next step is to open up the discussion to many disciplines, including philosophy, science, and anthropology, and come up with a definition of what an archive of heritage smells would look like, and who could access it.

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