Scientists and a perfumer define and distill the smell of old books

How we know what we smell is through odour signals being processed in the part of our brain that stores smell identification, memory, and emotion. Smells can take us back years and years, to specific times, happenings and feelings. But how about multiple lifetimes? Two researchers at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič, have figured out how to identify and store the smells of the past, the looooong ago past, and specifically, the smell of very old books.

Cecilia Bembibre sampling the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) of a historic book using solid phase microextraction (SPME) at the Heritage Science Lab in UCL. Source:

The science behind historic odours

In a paper, Smell of heritage: a framework for the identification, analysis and archival of historic odours, published in April 2017, Bembibre and Strlič state that the problem has been that;

“…we don’t know much about the smells of the past. Yet, odours play an important role in our daily lives: they affect us emotionally, psychologically and physically, and influence the way we engage with history. Can this lead us to consider certain smells as cultural heritage? And if so, what would be the processes for the identification, protection and conservation of those heritage smells?”

I definitely think that smells are part of a cultural heritage. For instance, there may still be people who grew up in South Africa who can remember how the clay floor of a house smelled after it had been wiped with fresh diluted cow dung, and strewn with reeds. That is a smell of long, long ago. It smelled of farm, and of cows, but it also smelled antiseptic and acidic. And you can still smell it in the circa 1709 Schreuder House in the Village Museum in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The Japan Ministry of the Environment certainly values historic odours. The Japanese 100 Most Fragrant [Kaori] Landscapes list was established in 2001 after a nationwide consultation in which 5600 candidate smells were submitted by local groups. The aromas included ancient woods, sea breeze, sake distilleries and a street lined with bookshops, and the places where those smells can be experienced must be preserved for the future. The brochure is here, Japan 100 Most Fragrant Landscapes, in Japanese only, but the range of places, judging by the pictures, is interesting.

Bembibre and Strlič write:

“Odours are powerful triggers for emotions via the limbic system of the brain, which deals with emotions and memory. They are an effective way to evoke recollections; certain aromas can even act as part of the common memory of a generation. For example, people born before 1930 tend to display positive association with nature scents, and the fragrance of Playdough triggers nostalgia in those born after 1960.”

Playdough (or “Play-Doh”)? I’d recognize that smell instantly.

Since the smell of paper was considered particularly important and difficult to analyze, they focused on creating the Book Odour Wheel of Historic Books, a new documentation tool that represents the first step in documenting and archiving historic smells – like the industry standard Fragrance Wheel, but for old books and libraries.

Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič: Odour Wheel of Historic Books containing general aroma categories, sensory descriptors and chemical information on the smells as sampled (colours are arbitrary).

Describing most smells (volatile organic compounds) through the use of headspace solid phase microextraction (HS-SPME) and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC–MS), the authors could finally put words to the smell of old books:

“Old books smell like ‘a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.’”

However, the exact smell depends on the composition of the paper and its rate of degradation.

A perfume with the smell of a library

In the Library group of products, by Christopher Brosius of I Hate Perfume.

Perfumer Christopher Brosius has already developed a perfume based on the smell of old books, called In the Library, which he based on the smell of the paper as well as the bindings of books, and describes as follows:

“There are few things more wonderful than the smell of a much-loved book. Newly printed books certainly smell very different from older ones. Their ink is so crisp though the odor of their paper is so faint. Older books smell riper and often sweeter. Illustrated books have a very different odor from those with straight text and this smell often speaks of their quality. I’ve also noticed that books from different countries and different periods have very individual scents too. These speak not only of their origin, but of their history to this moment. I can distinguish books that were well cared for from those that were neglected. I can often tell books that lived in libraries where pipes or cigars were regularly smoked.”

“In the Library” is a warm blend of “English Novel”, Russian & Moroccan Leather Bindings, Worn Cloth and a hint of Wood Polish.

You can find some of these descriptors on the Odour Wheel of Historic Books. In this scent, Brosius copied the main note, called “English Novel”, from one of his favourite novels that was originally published in 1927. He found a signed first edition in pristine condition many years ago in London and “…it had a marvellous warm woody slightly sweet smell and I set about immediately to bottle it.”

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