Published: May 1, 2020

For many people, the smell of a paper book is enchanting. Books can remind us of chocolate, coffee, smoke, wood or vanilla. The aroma is so popular, perfumiers have tried to capture the essence of a book's smell through candles and even cologne or eau de toilette. But why are we attracted to the way books smell?

Specific scents remind us of a place or a moment in time we remember. In the article "Smell of Heritage: A Framework for the Identification, Analysis and Archival of Historic Odours," Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlic write that smells are part of our cultural heritage. Specific smells can inform us about the nature, history and physical state of an object—in this case, a book—and the time when that scent was absorbed.

Chemistry is essential for understanding why books emit certain scents. The chemicals that produce these scents are called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These chemicals become activated with a high vapor pressure at ordinary room temperature. As Bembibre and Strlic explain, the amount of measurable VOCs in materials like historic paper depends on those materials’ rate of degradation. VOCs can be detected in increasing amounts as the materials that produce them begin to degrade. Papers will degrade at varying rates depending on the materials of which they are composed. Different materials will also produce different VOCs. The type of VOCs, and the amount being emitted, can help conservators determine overall paper condition and stability. The Historic Book Odour Wheel is one tool that allows conservators to classify the scents of books based on material degradation and the chemical compounds at play. 

In libraries, conservators monitor the state of books and may consider factors such as their historical significance and rarity when determining how to conserve or repair them. Let's not forget that not all books emit pleasant odors. When a book experiences water damage, for example, it may smell of mold. 

University Libraries Conservator Hillary Morgan explains that while there is no one way to remove all pungent odors, there are several approaches that book lovers can try at home.

"Place an odor-absorbing material in a large tub that has a lid," Morgan recommends. "Kitty litter, charcoal briquettes, or baking soda are great options. Then, find a smaller container that is large enough to hold your book. Place your book in the smaller container, place this in the larger container, and then seal the larger container with the lid. Let it sit until the book's unpleasant smell has lessened to your satisfaction." 

Morgan cautions that during this process, books should not come into direct content with the odor-absorbing cat litter, charcoal briquettes or baking soda. And she asks that Libraries users please not attempt this with books belonging to the University Libraries. 

Next time you are reading a book from the Libraries or your bookshelf, give it a whiff. We won't judge! After all, the smell of a book can tell you where it's been and how long it may last! Power is in the nose of the beholder.