Preserving the Scent of Old Books

- by Michael Stillman


The scent of In The Library (CB website photo).

It has been the mission for centuries of rare book and other libraries, along with various other institutions, to preserve old books. So much of humanity's heritage and history resides within them. However, this is the first time I've seen an attempt being made to preserve the scent of old books. While this seems odd, there may be a logic here. The text, illustrations, and appearance of old books can be somewhat preserved in images and electronic books. That is not true of their smell. There is no alternative.


The question now is exactly what is old book scent? It's not like flowers or skunks where you know what is giving off the odor. Old books, like new cars, have a scent that comes from various parts. Right now, research is taking place to determine what that is and how to preserve it for future generations to appreciate. The study is being undertaken at the UCL (University College London) Institute for Sustainable Heritage. The research is not limited to books but also covers many objects and places of cultural heritage significance.


The BBC reports that UCL Institute researcher Cecelia Bembibre has been testing various old scents to determine how best to preserve them. That includes antiquarian books. There are three ways used to capture that smell, the first two similar, the third very different. The first is to take certain fibers and expose them to the smell. It captures the chemicals that cause the odor, which are then separated from the fiber and analyzed to determine what they are.


The second takes a gas sample and identifies the chemicals directly from that. The third, however, is more subjective than analytic. A perfumer, the people whose sense of smell is so good that they can test perfume batches for the correct odor, is employed to determine whether an artificially created odor smells like old books. Interestingly, Ms Bembibre told the BBC that when ordinary people were asked which mimicked the smell of old books better, the chemically analyzed concoction or the one chosen by an expert perfumer, the split was 50-50. So much for science.


Perhaps this will lead to a product we will soon see on our store and library shelves. Once they discovered the formula, some clever companies started selling new car smell in a spray bottle. You can spray it in your old car and people will think it is new, at least so long as they don't look too carefully. There is nothing inherently pleasing about the smell of new cars. It is the association that makes people like it. The same may apply to old books and libraries. An odor that is composed of such things as glue, old leather, and paper can be pleasing because of the association.


However, there is one product, available right now, that I think may be carrying it a bit too far. The maker is CB (Christopher Brosius) I Hate Perfume. Brosius is a perfumer and “olfactory artist” who creates perfumes for those “who want to smell something different.” Indeed. One of his fragrances is “In The Library.” It is described as “a warm blend of English novel, Russian & Moroccan leather bindings, warn cloth and a hint of wood polish.” That does sound different. No roses and lilacs here. I like the smell of an old library, but I'm not sure I want to smell like one. In the BBC article on preserving heritage smells, it mentions preserving the smell of a London pub, “full of smoke and men and beer spilled on the floor and disinfectant coming out of the toilets.” That may be heritage, but I definitely don't want to smell like that either. Nor do I want to be next to someone who does. I don't think even the creative Christopher Brosius wants to bottle that. But as for the smell of an old library, you can pick up a bottle of his "In the Library" fragrance on his website. The price is $100, but if you are unsure, you can order a trial size bottle for $20.