Cocoa, wood, rusks every book has a distinctive smell. And each smell says something about how and when it was made, 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 old Penguin paperbacks, which he loved for their odour of fresh rusk biscuits.
Audience members responded with their own sense impressions. Peter, a pensioner, said he experienced books as smelling of salt and pepper that dryness when you open the cupboard with a touch of the sea, while 46-year-old Donna confessed that she had recently bought a book for her young son partly because it smelled of the rain.
To conservators and historians, smell has always played an important role in assessing the origin and condition of historic books, 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 lack of vocabulary could be about to change, thanks to a groundbreaking project by researchers at UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, who have devised a way of relating such apparently subjective descriptions directly to the chemical composition of books. In a paper published this week in the journal Heritage Science, Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strli describe how they analysed samples from an old book, picked up in a second-hand shop, and developed a historic book odour wheel, which connects identifiable chemicals with peoples reactions to them.
Using fibres from the novel, they produced an extract of historic book, which was presented to 79 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 Bernard Gassets 1928 novel Les Chardons du Baragan, followed by coffee, old, wood and burnt.
From the analytical perspective, and given that coffee and chocolate come from fermented/roasted natural lignin and cellulose-containing product, they share many VOCs (volatile organic compounds) with decaying paper, wrote the researchers, who combined the results with those of earlier research projects, such as studies of a 1940s visitors book at the National Trusts Knole House in Kent. Their study also took them beyond books themselves, to the places in which many of them are read: libraries. In another experiment, they asked visitors to the Wren Library in St Pauls cathedral to describe what the library smelled like to them. Everyone described its smell as woody, while 86% also experienced it as smoky, 71% as earthy and just under half (41%) reported the scent of vanilla all smells associated with particular chemicals in old books.