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.
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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.
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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.
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“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.