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Matching the Smells of Musty Manuscripts with Chemical Compounds

Researchers at University College London studied the scents of old books to better understand how to identify and protect “heritage smells.”

The library of Dean and Chapter at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where researchers sampled book smells (photo by Andrea Vail/Flickr)

Bury your nose in the nearest old book (or imagine a low-lit library, if you don’t have one on hand) — what do you smell? Some weathered tomes give off smoky perfumes of ash and incense; others emit whiffs of mustiness, like old clothes. These olfactory characteristics can communicate the presence of chemical compounds that may indicate degradation, something vital for conservators and curators to recognize. They can also convey the history of a book, what it’s made from, and where it’s been.

Yet as Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič, researchers at University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage, write in a paper published this month in the journal Heritage Science, “the role of smells in our perception of and engagement with the past has not been systematically explored.” Their findings, presented under the title “Smell of heritage: a framework for the identification, analysis and archival of historic odours,” are based on sampling volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which compose most odors, at sites including the library of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. They additionally surveyed people about their olfactory perceptions of historical books.

The researchers describe their approach to “heritage smells” as an engagement with questions of how such scents could be identified and conserved. They write:

In order to answer these questions, the connection between olfaction and heritage was approached in three ways: (1) through theoretical analysis of the concept and role of olfaction in heritage guidelines, leading to identification of places and practices where smell is fundamental to their identity, (2) through exploration of the evidence for use of smells in heritage as a tool to communicate with audiences; and (3) through experimental evaluation of the techniques and methods for analysing and archiving the smells, therefore enabling their documentation and preservation.

The “Historic Book Odour Wheel” created by Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič (courtesy Heritage Science)

As Kate Horowitz shared on Mental Floss, one possible answer proposed by the researchers is a “Historic Book Odour Wheel,” shown above. Similar to data visualizations like the UC Davis Wine Aroma Wheel, this graphic connects familiar descriptions of book smells (e.g. “charred wood” and “rotten socks”) to chemical compounds. A chocolate fragrance might alert a reader to decaying paper, for instance. “Creating an odour wheel for historic smells, where untrained noses could identify an aroma from the description and gain information about the chemical causing the odour, establishes a novel method of heritage documentation,” Bembibre and Strlič write.

I recently visited New York’s Morgan Library & Museum, where researchers from the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation are working on a reconstruction of the library’s scent in 1906. As we sniffed manuscripts, leathers, and adhesives, Christine Nelson, curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan, affirmed, “There is no single old book smell, and I associate that typical smell with a book that hasn’t been in a stable environment.”

You can read Bembibre and Strlič’s full paper for free online. As the researchers note, there’s “currently no strategy in the UK for the protection or preservation of smells,” but these diverse fragrances can represent a material history of objects, and are worth more attention than they’re currently given.

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