That Old Book Smell

As a life-long book collector and a long-time bookseller, I have always loved that special woody, floral, dusky aroma that only emanates from books with age. But what precisely is “that old book smell”? The journal Heritage Science has published an article on research that aims to answer the question.

“The Historic Book Odour Wheel, a novel tool representing the first step towards documenting and archiving historic smells” divides the old book aroma into eight catagories—Chemical/Hydrocarbons, Earthy/Musty/Mouldy, Fishy/Rancid, Fragrant/Vegetable/Fruit/Flowers, Grassy/Woody, Medicinal, Smokey/Burnt, and Sweet/Spicy.

The research,conducted by the University of London’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage, hoped to assist archivists in identifying which books were most in need of protection and preservation. Scientists have long understood that the old book smell is created by the degradation of volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the binding, paper, ink, and glue of antiquarian books, but a systematic classification of the odors has been absent.

The project researchers developed the “Historic Book Odour Wheel” using descriptors provided by volunteer subjects at the Birmingham Museum. Other participants evaluated book smells at the Library of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.

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