My Proustian madeleine is a piece of furniture. One of the first things I do when I arrive at our house in Poltava is to pry open the stubborn glass doors of the old bookcase and take a deep inhale. Even before I knew how to read, I loved smelling the leather bound volumes standing in neat rows on its shelves, so it’s true that my love of reading and my interest in aromas developed in tandem. Inside, the bookcase smells of vetiver roots, vanilla and sesame biscuits.
I’m not being whimsical with my descriptions, however. A ground breaking project by researchers at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage explored odor descriptions as they relate to the chemical composition of books and created a “historic book odor wheel” to link the scents with the aromatics present in decaying paper. It’s amazing to see how many aroma-molecules books and perfumes have in common, from limonene (zesty, lemon-line odor) to hexanal (freshly cut grass) and vanillin (sweet, vanilla).
As the Guardian reported, “the project originated in Strlič’s observation of the importance of smell to conservators and librarians. ‘Librarians have told us that it’s the smell that hits readers first. It’s the way libraries communicate, before people even get to the books; but what the books communicate through smell is also interesting. The idea is to propose a large theoretical framework of which smells hold cultural value for us as a society,’ he says.” Two researchers, Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič collected visitor descriptions of a historic book extract through a survey and conducted “a sensory evaluation at a historic library”.
Unlike the culinary arts and other intangible forms of cultural heritage, olfaction is ignored by organizations like UNESCO. Our past is presented as odorless. Discussions about aromas are reduced to commercial descriptions. The project by the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage adds an important corrective by giving us a richer understanding of smells in history and also examining what odors reveal about books.
Indeed, they reveal a lot. The scents of books tell us about the way they were manufactured, bound and treated. They can also pinpoint their age, since at different times a variety of techniques and treatments were used. Moreover, the study devises a vocabulary for describing the odors of books, and their aroma wheel is a useful tool.
If you’re interested in more details of the project, take a look at the paper published by Bembibre and Strlič in Heritage Science, Smell of heritage: a framework for the identification, analysis and archival of historic odours.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin