The Old Book Smell

Many of us love the musky smell that fills our nostrils as we enter an antique shop or an old bookstore. This is because the scent is much more pleasant than the one we get from newly printed books.

A lot of people say that the smell of old books reminds them of chocolate. This is understandable, since they often possess a sweet and musky scent that resembles the well-known aroma of cocoa.

For this reason, a team of researchers from the University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage decided to create a classification that helps them determine and characterize the scents of old books. This might play a vital role in determining the state of old books and stopping any damage which might result in their complete deterioration.

Book conservators often smell books to determine what materials were used in their creation. Every material develops a specific smell as it ages. The researchers decided that they needed to find a way to quantify all those odors quickly if they were to create a method for book preservation.

The human nose, as sensitive as it is, can only do so much when it comes to recognizing odors. For the sake of precision, more accurate scientific techniques need to be developed.

Old books often contain materials that release volatile organic compounds into the air over time. When those chemical signatures reach our noses, we interpret them as smells.

Sensors have already been developed that can also pick up on these compounds. These sensors work similarly to the ones used to detect drugs or explosives. The difference with sensors used for books is that they recognize small variations in the composition of old books. Scientists use gas chromatographs to identify the essential components of the smells collected from books

The scientists did not only focus on chemical traces that they found in books. They also wanted to see how those smells affected people around them.

In 2017, an experiment was set up at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in which the visitors were exposed to unlabeled and concealed smells. A vast majority of the 79 participants revealed that they detected a chocolatey aroma when smelling old books.

What surprised the researchers was the number of people that said they identified chocolate and, to a lesser extent, coffee when it came to labeling the smell of books.

This does make sense as people often revert to familiar associations when determining scents which are unlabeled. Also, it is true that the VOC’s connected to coffee and chocolate are similar to VOC’s related to books, but the rate at which people gave the same answer was unusual. A similar study was conducted on people that visited St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The participants described that these smells were smokier, much more similar to the smell of wood. This makes sense since their surroundings were wooden. The library at St. Paul’s was chosen for a reason, as its scent is so distinctive it is often mentioned in guest book comments. Any conservation effort must preserve that smell as well as the books themselves.

Previously, the preservation of smell was low on the list of any conservation effort, and scientists are now trying to change that. This is due to the fact that the sense of smell is closely connected to the memory center located in the human brain. People often cite strong odors as triggers for memories.

There are plans to expand these conservation efforts far beyond the smell of books and in the future scientists are going to conduct surveys to determine which smells people want to preserve for the future.

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