Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The fragrant smell of books

The fascination for libraries is a fascinating subject itself. It is amazing how many people find their peace and quiet inside one. How many people use or have used a library to scape for their problems, their ordeals, their boredom, fears... To others, a library is/was a place for adventure, a place of discovery. To me, most of the times a library was just a place to research and study. A place where knowledge was organized in shelves available to me if I would keep quiet. It was also a place that would lead me to severe allergic crises because I was always very allergic to mold and dust.
So I thought of giving more attention to this love for libraries to try to understand what is so special about them. 


In my research I found bizarre things such as Rachel Morrison's the books performance. This Senior Library Assistant performs smelling book session at MoMa - NYC, where she smells books from their library!

I extracted the description of the project from the museum's blog for your amusement:

"My performance started with the first call number in the Library of Congress classification system AC5.S4 1934,Sermons by Artists, and I will smell until I reach ZN3.R45, Bibliography of the History of Art. I document the performance in a ledger, recording the call number, title, and a description of the smell of each book. The goal of this personal olfactory exploration is to foster a discussion of the future of print media, the ways we read, methods of classification, and the way in which smell is entwined with memory".

photo credit: MoMa NYC

photo credit: MoMa NYC

What's interesting about this project is that you will find out that the performer shows us that each book in this library has its particular smell -  From glue to dog poop! 
IMO this is because each book is coming from a different place, touched by different people and they were produced at different times and places. Maybe also where they were kept over the years before being stored in the library (?).
If you wish to read some of her insights, please click HERE.

I also found interesting science projects where chemists have already identified 15 substances often presented in books that are called VOC's, and that their degradation emit some sort of gas that can be quantified and rated. Matija Strlic of the University College London's Center for Sustainable Heritage decided to start a project that will detect and tests books through their gas emission, with sniffing devices to date them and other paper materials based on their VOC breakdown. The idea is to help museums and libraries to preserve their paper objects.

Here is the description of the project:

"This innovative project (2010-2013) will look at the diagnostic value of the smell of heritage objects. We are all familiar with the smell of old books, but it has only recently been shown that the compounds emitted by paper provide clues about its composition and condition. Using appropriate portable tools, which have recently become available, it should in principle be possible to "sniff" objects in non-laboratory conditions and thus provide valuable information to the end-users.
The increased interest in volatiles emitted by heritage objects (i.e. their smell) also comes from the fact that they constitute indoor-generated pollution. This is known to affect materials and objects in close (or not so close) contact but needs to be understood better. Also, some objects, particularly ethnographic objects, may have been treated with pesticides and their safest identification could be by instrumental sniffing. There are a number of applications for this approach and the Heritage Smells! project will lead the way towards introduction of small portable sniffing devices into conservation and management practice.

UCL Centre for Sustainable Heritage will be particularly involved in research on book and plastic material identification and condition assessment based on non-destructive determination of volatiles emitted by the objects. To do this, we will use gas chromatography and mass spectrometry in the laboratory, and a portable mass spectrometric tool to be used in situ, in libraries, museums, archives and galleries. The data will need to be instantly available, and development of appropriate data processing tools will also be part of our task".

As Mr. Matija Strlic also explains:

“The aroma of an old book is familiar to every user of a traditional library. A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness, this unmistakable smell is as much a part of the book as its contents. It is the result of the several hundred VOCs off-gassing from paper and the object in general. The particular blend of compounds is a result of a network of degradation pathways and is dependent on the original composition of the object including paper substrate, applied media, and binding.”

The idea is to substitute the conventional method of removing samples from the books, with a technique that does not alter the documents:

"The new technique — an approach called “material degradomics” — analyzes the gases emitted by old books and documents without altering the documents themselves. The scientists used it to “sniff” 72 historical papers from the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the papers contained rosin (pine tar) and wood fiber, which are the most rapidly degrading types of paper found in old books. The scientists identified 15 VOCs that seem good candidates as markers to track the degradation of paper in order to optimize their preservation. The method also could help preserve other historic artifacts..."

Basically, that gave me a hint. Besides being a quiet place where you won't be bothered and where you will have access to worlds, cultures and adventures, a library offers an unique olfactive experience that has been already printed in our minds since we were very little. This grassy vanilla scent that seems to be the olfactive identity of the library brings us back to times when things were simple and fun. Of course not all childhood memories are pleasant, I said that before in other vanilla-related posts, but usually the memories associated with vanilla are fun - such as waffles, ice cream cones and other treats and also holidays.
Not to mention one of the joyful experiences of leaving the school building on a tour to the library with our little school mates! Remember the thrill of sitting with friends in the bus? Eating a special lunch outside? Exploring a different place with people you usually see only in school? All that was stored in your GOOD MEMORIES drawer inside your brain.

Fact is that libraries contain the smell of warmth, comfort, pleasure and sweetness all together!

Researching about this pleasant olfactive experience that libraries offer, I also found many perfumers who tried to capture them in bottles:

Perfumer Christopher Brosious of CB I Hate Perfume evoked the smell of libraries and its books in a perfume called IN THE LIBRARY. In an interview for the website BOOKRIOT.COM he explained that books basically have the smell of paper, glue and ink, but this is not as simple as it looks like. Different papers and leathers are used in books produced in different places, so in order to create the fragrance he took a collection of olfactive experiences he had in bookstores and libraries throughout his life. 
To read the entire interview please click HERE, and to read a full description of how books smell according to CB, click HERE.

Demeter Fragrance Library also tried to capture that smell in a fragrance called Paperback described as "A trip to your favorite library or used bookstore. Sweet and lovely with just a touch of the musty smell of aged paper, Demeter's Paperback harnesses that scent with a sprinkling of violets and a dash of tasteful potpourri".

Geza Schoen, Karl Lagerfeld, Steidl and Wallpaper Magazine created PAPER PASSION, a fragrance with the smell of recently printed books. 
To read more about the fragrance try LUCKYSCENT WEBSITE  (where you can also purchase this perfume).

Most recently Julian Bedel from Argentinian Niche perfumery brand FUEGUIA 1883 created a concept fragrance that is absolutely divine - BIBLIOTECA DE BABEL. As the name suggests, the perfume captures the very essence of a refined library and it is inspired by Argentinian writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. (this perfume will render a separate review in the near future).

So here it is lovely ones. 
Books. Some like to read them; some like just to smell them.

In times where ebooks are available, try to find some time to smell a bit of vanilla pages! 


Avery Gilbert said...


You think Rachel Morrison is bizarre? Try this footnote from Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Vol. 4:

Philip Salmuth (Observationes Medicæ, Centuria II, no. 63) in the seventeenth century recorded a case in which a young girl of noble birth (whose sister was fond of eating chalk, cinnamon, and cloves) experienced extreme pleasure in smelling old books. It would appear, however, that in this case the fascination lay not so much in the odor of the leather as in the mouldy odor of worm-eaten books; "fætore veterum liborum, a blattis et tineis exesorum, situque prorsus corruptorum" are Salmuth's words.

Nando said...

também concordo

Unknown said...

Great Information to buy online Perfumes .. I am waiting for your next post

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