Why You Love the Smell of Old Books

By Danielle Pope

Why You Love the Smell of Old Books
Scientists are investigating the significance of scent in forming cultural identity

Scent is one of our most powerful senses. A whiff of rose oil and lavender may conjure up images of a lost grandmother, while a combination of sunscreen, mosquito repellent and fresh cut grass is enough to make us feel like we are on summer holidays.

While the power of scent has been heavily explored, scientists are now investigating the significance of scents from a cultural perspective. A recent paper in the Heritage Science Journal has suggested that scent be included in a proposed intangible heritage list recognised by UNESCO.

Authors of the paper, Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič, argue that smells are part of our cultural heritage, “They affect us emotionally, psychologically and physically and influence the way we engage with history.” Bembibre and Strlič outline how smells not only are powerful memory triggers, but also form an important part of local identity, tourism experiences and influence the way we engage with history.

According to the guidelines published by the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, the smells of a place are considered of value because they affect our experience of it. “For this reason, they should be taken into account when defining the character of a historic area,” Bembibre and Strlič argue.

The paper goes on to explore the smell of historical or old books specifically, as an example of a smell that has significant cultural identity. “Often the smell of books intrigues and inspires,” they say. Old books have been formally identified as smelling like “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.” “These aromas, along with those of the surrounding furnishings of an historical library space, create the unique smell that many visitors appreciate, conferring significance to this aroma through its communal value,” say Bembibre and Strlič.

The paper’s findings coincides with similar findings of a recent study published in the American Journal of Psychology which show that odours are crucial to attaching meaning to spaces or experiences.


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