What do old books smell like?
August 27, 2019 11:28 AM   Subscribe

Chocolate, cocoa, chocolatey, coffee, old, wood or burnt (The Guardian)? Musty, mossy or mushroomy (Science History)? Coal fire, old inn, fish market or dirty linen (Heritage Science Journal)?
Old books actually smell like chocolate and coffee (Popular Science): In a study published [April 2017] in Heritage Science, researchers at the University College London's Institute for Sustainable Heritage examined the smell of books and libraries, putting together a classification scheme that could help characterize the scents of the past—and maybe even diagnose deteriorating books before damage gets out of control.[...]

[The authors of the paper] partnered with the U.K.’s leading conservation organization, the National Trust, to set up an experiment where visitors to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery were participated in a test of unlabeled (and concealed) smells. This is where the vast majority of the 79 people interviewed identified old books as smelling kind of like chocolate.

"You tend to use familiar associations to describe smells when they are unlabelled," Bembibre says. "And also, the [volatile organic compounds] of chocolate and coffee seem to be very similar to that of books. But it was still surprising to see that reference come up again and again."
Previously: "A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness"; I Love the Smell of Books in the Morning. Smells Like... Literacy.
posted by not_the_water (10 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
They smell like places I love, because I love books, and thus the places they come from. The best ones are the warped paperbacks at the beach that smell like dried salt because someone left them face down on a beach chair at high tide. Second best were the library books from my childhood that smelled like metal shelving and the ink they used to stamp the return date on the back cover.
posted by sallybrown at 11:43 AM on August 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

When I was a kid, I always thought the books I checked-out from the library smelled faintly of old vomit.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:01 PM on August 27, 2019

The CB I Hate Perfume store in NYC has a perfume called In the Library. Me, I like the one that “smells like dirt,” according to my wife. It is supposed to smell like a forest floor, with its decayed leaves etc. and reminds me of my childhood. I believe the Library one has notes of tobacco.
posted by kozad at 1:44 PM on August 27, 2019

I love and hate that smell. I love the smell of books in general, bookstores, libraries, the way a book smells when I'm reading. I have spent a large portion of my life reading and in bookstores, so it smells familiar. Old books very often smell of decay, as the paper is acidic and it eats the book over time. Esp. cheap old paperbacks that can disintegrate in your hand. So some of the smell is rather tragic.

There is quite a lot of marketing around the idea of loving books - candles, book-related t-shirts and bags - but I think hardcore booklovers really just want more books. Though I like a particular book bag my Mom gave me.
posted by theora55 at 2:14 PM on August 27, 2019

I imagine old books to smell like autumn, in the south, without rain.

For me though, the most puzzling of all, is that the smell of old books makes me have to defecate. My library visits are very strategic and usually urgent.
I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this before , sooo... thanks ?
posted by shimmerglimpse at 2:58 PM on August 27, 2019 [4 favorites]

First, I had a house guest last year who wanted to make sure he knew where the bathrooms were in the Strand, because he has the same thing going as you, shimmerglimpse. Shrug?

Second, I worked at the university library as a work-study kid and there was a section of books that were still Dewey-numbered. They were old. The section smelled like musty vanilla. I would go over there and take a few deep breaths when filing govdocs got too tedious.

I gave the greatest library tour, loving to point out the China section, where all the books were red. Ireland was green. Feminism was embarrassingly pink. There was a cactus on the third floor that looked like a writhing man. I still front a shelf or two whenever I'm in a library. Mmmmm, books.
posted by lauranesson at 4:25 PM on August 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

@shimmerglimpse You are not alone!! I was going to post the same thing!
posted by onebyone at 4:55 PM on August 27, 2019

Vaguely of smoke, to me, since my parents had a house fire a couple of years before I was born that left their largish collection of books with a faint aroma of (surprisingly not-acrid) smoke.
posted by wierdo at 1:35 AM on August 28, 2019

It is astonishing and marvelous, this power of the internet to reveal that book-smell defecation urgency is a thing. I am enriched, no kidding.
posted by away for regrooving at 9:07 PM on August 28, 2019

If you’re a Time Traveller, old books must smell like dust of the dead past.
posted by cenoxo at 10:10 PM on August 28, 2019

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