Historic Book Odour Wheel.

ScienceDaily reports on a project “to document and archive the aroma associated with old books”; on the one hand, it seems ripe for mockery, but on the other hand, as a confirmed book-sniffer I can’t help but find it intriguing:

A ‘Historic Book Odour Wheel’ which has been developed to document and archive the aroma associated with old books, is being presented in a study in the open access journal Heritage Science. Researchers at UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage created the wheel as part of an experiment in which they asked visitors to St Paul’s Cathedral’s Dean and Chapter library in London to characterize its smell.

The visitors most frequently described the aroma of the library as ‘woody’ (selected by 100% of the visitors who were asked), followed by ‘smoky’ (86%), ‘earthy'(71%) and ‘vanilla’ (41%). The intensity of the smells was assessed as between ‘strong odor’ and ‘very strong odor’. Over 70% of the visitors described the smell as pleasant, 14% as ‘mildly pleasant’ and 14% as ‘neutral’. […]

Cecilia Bembibre, heritage scientist at UCL and corresponding author of the study said: “Our odour wheel provides an example of how scientists and historians could begin to identify, analyze and document smells that have cultural significance, such as the aroma of old books in historic libraries. The role of smells in how we perceive heritage has not been systematically explored until now.”

Further research is, needless to say, needed. The study is “Smell of heritage: A framework for the identification, analysis and archival of historic odours,” by Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič. Thanks, Paul!


  1. Lin Yutang’s Chinese-English dictionary of 1972, printed in Japan, has had a unique smell which I never encountered in any other books. Over the years, whenever I see a copy, I take a whiff. The smell has faded a lot, but it is still somewhat detectable. I wish I knew what the special ingredient was in that batch of paper. I associate that smell with that beautiful edition, and with its innovative indexing method for Chinese characters.

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