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Monday, April 17, 2017

Capturing the Odour of Books

For many bibliophiles, there’s nothing that beats the smell of books.  That’s the reason why some readers prefer the printed book to ebooks. 

A team of researchers concluded that the smell of books is a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.  Of course, there’s more to the book smell than just a blend of pleasant scents.  It’s memories aroused by that smell.  The nose is connected to the limbic system responsible for our emotions, so smell is one of the strongest ways to trigger happy memories of reading.  If you are interested in why people love the smell of old books, watch this video:

There are a number of fragranced candles which claim to recreate the book smell.  For an overview of book-scented candles and perfumes, see this blog: 

There’s an interesting experiment involving the smell of books happening at the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan.  Researchers are capturing the smell of its old books to reconstruct the building’s 1906 aroma.  “Their main tool, in addition to their curious noses, is a small glass dome that can gently rest on a centuries-old book without damaging it, collecting its character with molecules on a wax needle.  Later these odors can be analyzed with a mass spectrometer, and ultimately, with scents of weathered leather books . . . a profile of the Morgan Library in 1906 can be created” (

I love the motivation of Christine Nelson, curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan, for getting involved :  “One of the reasons I was very drawn to working with this project was that for years people have come to me and said: ‘Oh God, it must smell so great where you work! I remember that old book smell from my favorite library so well.’ Everybody has some sort of olfactory memory of a library that probably had an effect on their lives” (

And I came across another article, this one in The Guardian newspaper, about researchers creating a historic book odour wheel:  “In a paper published this week in the journal Heritage Science, Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič describe how they analyzed samples from an old book, picked up in a second-hand shop, and developed a ‘historic book odor wheel,’ which connects identifiable chemicals with people’s reactions to them. Using fibers from the novel, they produced an ‘extract of historic book,’ which was presented to seventy-nine visitors to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Chocolate, cocoa, or chocolatey were the most frequent words used to describe the smell of a copy of French writer Panait Istrati’s 1928 novel Les chardons du Baragan, followed by coffee, old, wood, and burnt … The researchers believe the historic book odor wheel could become a useful diagnostic tool for conservators across a wide range of areas, helping them to assess the condition of objects through their olfactory profile” (