Cocoa, wood, rusks every book has a distinctive smell. And each smell says something about how and when it was attained, and where it has been
What does it mean to experience a book? To a bibliophile such as Alberto Manguel, smell plays an important part. In a talk at the British Library this week, the one-time protege of Jorge Luis Borges and director of the National Library of Argentina said he was particularly partial to age-old Penguin paperbacks, which he enjoyed for their odour of fresh rusk biscuits.
Audience members responded with their own sense impressions. Peter, a pensioner, said he experienced volumes as smelling of salt and pepper that dryness when you open the cupboard with a touching of the sea, while 46 -year-old Donna was recognized that she had recently bought a book for her young son partly because it reeked of the rain.
To curators and historians, smell has always played an important role in assessing the descent and condition of historic volumes, and in working out how to look after them. I have no vocabulary to define this, but there is a curious warm leathery smell to English parchment, unlike the sharper, cooler scent of Italian skins, wrote the Cambridge University don and librarian Christopher de Hamel in his bestselling Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.
But that absence of vocabulary could be about to change, thanks to a groundbreaking project by researchers at UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, who have devised a style of pertaining such apparently subjective descriptions immediately to the chemical composition of volumes. In a paper published this week in the publication Heritage Science, Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strli describe how they analysed samples from an age-old book, picked up in a second-hand shop, and developed an historical book odour wheel, which connects identifiable chemicals with people reactions to them.
Using fibers from the fiction, they produced an extract of historic book, which was submitted to 79 visitors to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Chocolate, chocolate or chocolatey were the most frequent terms used to describe the smell of a copy of French novelist Bernard Gassets 1928 fiction Les Chardons du Baragan, followed by coffee, age-old, wood and burnt.
From the analytical perspective, and given that coffee and chocolate “re coming out” fermented/ roasted natural lignin and cellulose-containing product, they share many VOCs( volatile organic compounds) with decomposing paper, wrote the researchers, who mixed research results with those of earlier research projects, such as studies of a 1940 s visitors book at the National Trusts Knole House in Kent. Their survey also took them beyond volumes themselves, to the places in which many of them are read: libraries. In another experimentation, they asked visitors to the Wren Library in St Pauls cathedral to describe what the library reeked like to them. Everyone described its smell as woody, while 86% likewise experienced it as smoky, 71% as earthy and only under half( 41%) reported the scent of vanilla all fragrances associated with particular chemicals in age-old books.