Why you like the smell of old books
By Sidney Stevens
mnn.com - May 4, 2017
A new study says historic smells are part of our 'cultural heritage' and should be saved to bring the past to life.
You can learn a lot about the past by looking at old photos, walking through ancient buildings and rummaging through antique shops and historic archives. But you can also learn plenty by breathing in its smells.
In fact, according to a new study in the journal Heritage Science, the odors of the past are part of our “cultural heritage,” as important to our understanding and connection with history — and as worthy of preservation — as the relics we can see and touch.
But how do you describe and document these culturally valuable smells so future generations can understand them and even reproduce them? The study’s co-authors, Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič, decided to take a stab at this massive undertaking by focusing on a smell that most of us recognize immediately and love: old books. Their findings may aid historians in pinpointing and repairing damage in deteriorating historic tomes, plus the odor classification scheme they devised could help ensure that smells from the past live on.
The nose knows
You’ve probably experienced the power of smells to evoke old memories and trigger vivid emotions. The aroma of baking chocolate chip cookies, for example, may transport you instantly to your grandma’s kitchen. Or the smell of damp earth may ferry you back to your favorite childhood ravine.
In the same way, old books (specifically the historic paper and other materials used) give off unique moldy or sweetly musty scents that readers and history buffs know intimately and find pleasurable. For many, that “old book smell” elicits fond memories of childhood hours spent absorbed in beloved stories and discovering the world.