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Smells Like?

What is the “Historic Book Odor Wheel”? This is a tool that categorizes the smells emitted by old books. Wow! What will they think of next?!


After seeing this on my calendar, it piqued my interest so I did a little more digging. According to boingboing.net University College London researchers created this Historic Book Odour* Wheel with the help of mass spectrometry. Did it pass the smell test? I think so! Atlasobscura.com has this to say: “IT’S OFFICIAL. Science has decided that old books smell ‘smoky,’ ‘earthy,’ and more than anything, ‘woody.’ That’s based on findings released… by Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič, researchers at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, who have been working to capture, analyze, and catalog historic and culturally important scents. The scientists collected the responses of visitors to St Paul’s Cathedral’s Dean and Chapter library in London, asking them to describe the smell and later compiling the results in a document they’re calling the Historic Book Odour Wheel. “



The Paris Review starts out by saying: “Take a whiff of a musty old book—isn’t that nice? We all have our favorites. Me, I like the ones that smell like my granddad’s scalp just after a hot-oil treatment, or like a saucepan of raw sheep’s milk left out under the hot noonday sun.” Yuk – I’m not really sure about either one of these but I agree about opening a musty old book and taking a sniff. Personally, I think the ones that have a slight burnt smell or a chocolatey odor are the best.

A great website for learning about how stuff works is howstuffworks.com. Just looking at today’s entries I find intriguing articles such as “Were US Interstates Really Designed As Runways?” and “The Amazing Mantis Shrimp Punches It’s Prey, Plus Other Colorful Facts”. But, I digress…back to smelly books… This is an excerpt from howstuffwork.com about the Historic Book Odor Wheel: “In one experiment, the researchers asked visitors at the historic library to characterize the odors they smelled. More than 70 percent of respondents considered the library smell as "pleasant." All the visitors thought it smelled 'woody,' while 86 percent noticed a 'smoky' aroma. "Earthy" (71 percent) and 'vanilla' (41 percent) were also descriptors visitors chose often. Other responses ranged from musty to pungent, and floral to rancid.


In another experiment, the study authors analyzed the responses of 79 visitors to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (U.K.) to the smell of a historic book from a secondhand bookstore. To capture the book smell, a piece of sterile gauze was soaked in 5 milliliters (0.17 ounces) of an extract of the book odor and placed in an unlabeled metal canister screwed shut to prevent visitors from peeking. The top three responses when the visitors were prompted to describe the smell? Chocolate, coffee and old.


The team even analyzed the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the book and the library. Most odors are composed of VOCs, or chemicals that evaporate at low temperatures. VOCs are often associated with certain smell types, like acetic acid with 'sour.'


Using the data from the chemical analysis and visitors' smell descriptions, the researchers created the Historic Book Odour Wheel to document and archive the "historic library smell." Main categories, such as 'sweet/spicy,' fill the inner circle of the wheel; descriptors, such as 'caramel/biscuits' fill the middle; and the chemical compounds likely to be the smelly source, like furfural, fill the outer circle.**


The researchers want the book odor wheel to be an interdisciplinary tool that 'untrained noses' can use to identify smells and the compounds causing them, which could address conservators' concerns about material composition and degradation, inform artifact paper conservation decisions and benefit olfactory museum experiences.” Fascinating!


So really, what more can I add except to suggest sticking your nose into an old book and comparing it to a fine wine...or a box of chocolates…or a campfire? Did you detect floral notes or Grandpa’s barbershop? Only the nose knows!


*Odour wasn’t misspelled – it's English for odor


**I'd like to know why 'Pumpkin Spice' did not make the wheel

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