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For anyone who doesn’t get why old book smell is special, meet these two scientists

19 September 2017

From Upworthy:

Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič remember how it smells to enter the library of Dean and Chapter.

The library is nestled above the main floor of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, tucked away behind the southwest tower. Coming through the long stone corridors of the cathedral, a visitor is met with a tall wooden door, usually kept closed. The outside world might be full of the smell of fumes from central London’s busy roads or the incense that wafts through the church, but once you open that door, a different smell envelops you. It’s woody, musty, and a little bit familiar.

“It is a combination of paper, leather, wood … and time,” said the pair.

. . . .

Bembibre and Strlič are scientists from the University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage. Many people might find the aroma of an old, yellowing book nostalgic, but for Bembibre and Strlič, it can be so much more.

For them, what we smell is just as much a part of our heritage as what we see or hear — and they’re on a mission to preserve it.

. . . .

For their latest work, the pair used both high-tech chemistry and an old-fashioned human nose to document the smell of books.

Volunteers were asked to describe either the aroma of the cathedral library (woody, smoky, vanilla) or antique books (chocolate, burnt, mothballs). Bembibre and Strlič then combined these descriptors with analyses of the faint, airborne scent-laden chemicals (known as VOCs) that the items or locations were giving off.

The pair then synthesized these findings into the Historic Book Odour Wheel, which pairs the chemical signatures and human descriptors together. Using it, you can see that a book with a rich caramel smell might be impregnated with the chemical furfural or one with an old-clothing funk might be giving off the chemical hexanal.

. . . .

“Our knowledge of the past is odourless,” the authors write in their paper. But our lives aren’t.

Link to the rest at Upworthy

PG prefers the aroma of cinnamon rolls in the oven.


10 Comments to “For anyone who doesn’t get why old book smell is special, meet these two scientists”

  1. I don’t start sneezing when I open/start up my kindle, thanks anyway.

  2. No print book can ever smell good enough to me to induce me to try to read it with all the pain and discomfort and inconvenience I have to deal with to do so.

  3. It’s always hilarious on here when PG posts a link about the smell of books or other positive aspects of books that people like. An awful lot of the comments that people immediately pile on with remind me of those “are you tired of dealing with this?” parts of infomercials, where they show people who can’t perform basic tasks until they get the new fangled device.

    Look, I get that you guys like e-books, but when any “paper books are nice because of this” articles immediately get comments like “paper makes me sneeze!” and “books are painful to hold!”, y’all kinda sound like a bunch of old people shouting at clouds for blocking the sun. Lighten up. Some people like stuff you don’t. That doesn’t mean the stuff you don’t like is a plague on humanity.

    • I didn’t mean to imply that print books are a plague on humanity. I actually quite like print books. However, the fact remains, I’ve not taken any of my print books (aside from my dictionary) off the shelf to read since I got my first ereader years ago. I actually have few print books, and nearly all of them I’ve kept due to either being unable to find electornic versions of them, or some of the same sentimental values these writers of paeans to the print book reveal they have.

      I personally get tired of these posts adulating the print book, because the writers of these articles clearly don’t consider what physical limitations readers may have which, as with me, drive them to turn to ebooks. I suppose I’m rather jaded, but I suspect if these people extolling the virtues of print books become less fanatical and come to admit that ebooks do have a viable place in readers’ hands, I will be quite happy to return the favor and accept their arguments praising the print book with equal patience and open-mindedness.

      Until then, I’ll hold the view that their reasons for promoting print books are nonsense when compared to the necessary practicality of an ereader and ebooks. And, yes, that practicality trounces my own sentimental attachment to print books–another of the reasons why I haven’t taken one off the shelf to read in years.

  4. I remember well the smell of old books. When I was in junior high school, I spent a lot of time in the school library. The newest book in that library was older than me.

    I have shelves and shelves of books, some precious few of them a hundred years old and more. I don’t value them for the way they smell, or feel, or look. I value them for the slices of history that they are, and the information that they hold.

    I still believe that if you sit around sniffing books, if you value them mostly for the way they smell, you don’t really get the purpose of a book.

  5. They make a living doing this?

  6. I love these posts on describing how books smell — I use their observations to describe the libraries and bookstores in my novels. 😀

  7. “and time” = decay

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