The Scent of Old Books

  • 3 min read

An old book with roses - The Scent of Old Books

Our sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses. In fact, according to internationally recognized olfactive expert Dawn Goldwormsmell is the only fully developed sense a fetus has in the womb, and it’s the one that is the most developed in a child through the age of around 10 when sight takes over.

Our only other sense, if you can call it that, that’s as fully developed at this stage is emotion. Smell and emotion are stored as one memory. Childhood tends to be the period in which you create “the basis for smells you will like and hate for the rest of your life.” Some of our most powerful memories are linked to smell; the smell of freshly cut grass, or the morning smells coming from the kitchen when the whole family is gathered together for a special meal. 

A smell can transport us to a time and place in the past. We can remember the sights and the sounds with incredible precision. We also recall how we felt at the time, in that place.

The first time I really listened to the lyrics of the Jimmy Buffet ballad, "Love in the Library" I was transported to a "feel good" time and place.  I envisioned the grand staired entrance to the historic brick building that housed the public library in the small town where I grew up in rural Ohio. I easily recalled how colorful it was inside. How cool the air was. And it smelled really good. Warm and comforting. Familiar.

It smelled faintly like...vanilla. 

I knew the science of how the scent of the public library could make me feel after listening to Dawn Goldworm's TED Talk. I still didn't understand why I remembered the smell of the old public library being such a warm and pleasant scent and not the scent of old bricks and wood.  

It was the old books.

Old books just smell really good. Much like petrichor, that pleasant, earthy scent that accompanies a storm’s first raindrops, there was chemistry in the air of the public library.  As a book ages, the chemical compounds used; the glue, the paper, the ink, all begin to break down. As the paper breaks down, it releases volatile compounds. Hundreds of VOCs are released into the air from the paper. The scientific explanation for the vanilla-like scent is that almost all wood-based paper contains lignin, which is closely related to vanillin. 

In a 2009 study by the American Chemical Society, "Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old Books" Matija Strlic, the lead scientist described the smell of an old book; "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."

That's it.  That's the smell. Complex. Warm. Sweet. Familiar. 

As the song refrain goes:

Love in the library, quiet and cool
Love in the library, there are no rules
Surrounded by stories surreal and sublime
I fell in love in the library once upon a time

The scent of an old book is incredibly romantic.  The only question left for me now is: "Can we create a coconut milk soap that evokes the emotions of Jimmy Buffet's "Love in the Library"?

We did! It will be available April 5th!

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