Love the smell of old books? Scientists want to archive it

Posted at 8:30 AM, Apr 07, 2017

People love the smell of old books — so much so, that you can even buy perfumes and candles that have that aroma. Now, scientists want to archive the smell.

The researchers made a "historic book odor wheel" to document the scent of old books. In two separate experiments, they had participants describe the smell of a library and a book from 1928. Some said it had a "woody" and "vanilla" aroma, but others said it smelled like "fish" or "rotten socks."

That old book smell comes from the hundreds of volatile organic compounds in the pages, ink and adhesive. Over time, the compounds break down and release chemicals, giving off that familiar scent and making us feel nostalgic.

But why do certain smells have that effect? Besides our 1,000 different kinds of smell receptors, scientists think it has to do with how our brain processes odors and memories.

Smells are routed through the olfactory bulb — the smell-analyzing region of the brain. It's closely connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, which are responsible for memory and emotion.

And besides taking us back to our childhoods, that scent also might have practical uses. A book's smell can tell researchers if it might degrade, so experts say the odor wheel could help identify and preserve aging texts. It could also make museums smell more authentic, even if all the artifacts are sealed up.