If you are one of those people that love to read books and seen to enjoy the smell of old books, know that you’re not in any way weird. Something about the scent of old books can perk up any bookworm. And turns out, there’s a legitimate reason that dusty old pages actually smell good.
Most of what you smell comes from volatiles organic compounds (VOCs), which books give off as they decompose over time. University College London researchers extracted its VOCs from a 1928 French novel they found at a used bookstore.
Volunteers blindly sniffed extracts from the book, plus seven other unlabeled scents ranging from chocolate and coffee to fish market and dirty linen. Afterward, participants filled out a survey with a question asking them to describe the smell of the historic book.
According to the study published in the journal Heritage Science; without knowing what they were smelling, more than a third of the 79 participants said the old book extract reminded them of chocolate. Coffee was the second most reported scent.
The researchers say you tend to use familiar associations to describe smells when they are unlabeled. And also, the VOCs of chocolate and coffee seem to be very similar to that of books.
While this may sound funny, chocolate and coffee contain fermented or roasted chemical compounds called lignin and cellulose, which are also in decaying paper, the authors write.
For another part of the study, volunteers described the smell of the library at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where tourists often comment on the scent. Participants filled out questionnaires as soon as they walked into the space, before their noses could get used to the scent.
First they rated the intensity and appeal of the library, then picked out individual smells. The volunteers marked if they could sense any of the 21 smells the researchers picked out from a VOC analysis, and could fill in the blank with their own descriptions too.
The library scents were decidedly different from the book aromas. All seven of those volunteers said the library smelled woody, and most described it as smoky and earthy.
Noticing scents isn’t just a way of figuring out where you are, but it is also a way to reach long-forgotten memories. The human sense of smell is very close to the memory center in the human brain, and therefore we very often associate memories with certain smells very powerfully and very strongly.
Very often smell triggers old memories that we otherwise couldn’t trigger. It is one of the reasons smell plays such an important role in how we experience heritage.
By breaking down and pinpointing scents, the researchers eventually hope to mimic those smells in a laboratory to recreate aromas from the past. This starts a conversation with philosophers, scientists, anthropologists, technologists, and the public itself about what we need to describe a smell.