Why do old books smell so good

Curious Research: What Do Old Books Smell Like? This researcher knows the answer

Professor Matija Strlič from University College London heads the Institute for Sustainable Cultural Heritage. There he researches fragrance brands of the past. Strlič reveals in an interview why this is useful

GEO: What do you find fascinating about smells?

STRLIČ: I noticed that some librarians were sniffing old books to determine their age. As a chemist, I wanted to describe the disintegration of books analytically - using the smell, i.e. the volatile organic compounds that the paper gives off. We examined more than 70 types of paper. The unstable papers smelled sour from the acetic acid. Others smelled very sweet from the vanillin that had formed, just like vanilla.

Does this also apply to other items?

I guess so. We also examined old plastic. Some plastic dolls smell of vinegar - an indication that they erode quickly and contain high levels of acetic acid.

Does the study have any practical use?

Our classification enables restorers to find works that require conservation. Smell also has an influence on exhibitions: when we enter a library or a historical building, we expect certain scents - and if they are missing, something is wrong. This is also the problem of many museums, in whose sterile environment there is often no old smell.

Is it possible to reconstruct smells from the past?

We tried this once at the Birmingham Museum. Most of the visitors recognized the smell, many had great descriptions ready. So in order to bring old smells back to life, we not only need the chemical composition, but also people's personal impressions and memories.

In terms of smell: which era would you like to travel to?

Wherever the trip would go, I would certainly find myself in a rather smelly environment. Because hygiene has only improved noticeably in the last 150 years. Before that, the streets smelled rather strongly of urine and excrement.

Which of your books smells best?

Probably my grandmother's cookbook. To be honest, not because of the paper, but because I always appreciated her cooking skills. A lot of memories are part of the smell experience.