The Smell of Old Books

Books can hold stories, knowledge, ideas and memories - but what about the smell? What gives an old book that distinctive smell?
18 February 2008
Presented by Diana O'Carroll


Books can hold stories, knowledge, ideas and memories - but what about the smell?& So on this week's QotW - What gives an old book that distinctive smell?& Also, we ask how we perceive the 'size' of an odour, and if there's more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - is it leading to bigger caves?

In this episode

A multi-volume Latin dictionary (Egidio Forcellini: Totius Latinitatis Lexicon, 1858-87) in a table in the main reading room of the University Library of Graz. Definitely an old book!

00:00 - The Smell of Old Books?

The older the book, the better it smells, right? But just what is the smell of old books?

The Smell of Old Books?

We put this question to Jana, Head of Laboratory for Cultural Heritage at the University Library of Slovenia.A smell or odour is caused by volatile compounds which we perceive by the sense of olfaction. An odour of a book is a complex mixture of odorous volatiles, emitted from different materials from which books are made. Due to the different materials used to make books throughout history, there is no one characteristic odour of old books. A professional perfumer has evaluated seventy odorous volatiles emitted from books and described their smells as dusty, musty, mouldy, paper-like or dry.

The pleasant aromatic smell is due to aromatic compounds emitted mainly from papers made from ground wood which are characterised by their yellowish-brown colour. They emit vanilla-like, sweetly fragrant vanillin, aromatic anisol and benzaldehyde, with fruity almond-like odor. On the other hand, terpene compounds, deriving from rosin, which is used to make paper more impermeable to inks, contribute to the camphorous, oily and woody smell of books. A mushroom odour is caused by some other, intensely fragrant aliphatic alcohols.

A typical odour of 'old book' is thus determined mixture of fragrant volatiles and is not dominated by any single compound. Not all books smell the same.


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