For anyone who doesn't get why old book smell is special, meet these two scientists.

Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič remember how it smells to enter the library of Dean and Chapter.

The library is nestled above the main floor of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, tucked away behind the southwest tower. Coming through the long stone corridors of the cathedral, a visitor is met with a tall wooden door, usually kept closed. The outside world might be full of the smell of fumes from central London’s busy roads or the incense that wafts through the church, but once you open that door, a different smell envelops you. It’s woody, musty, and a little bit familiar.

“It is a combination of paper, leather, wood ... and time,” said the pair.


Photograph by Graham Lacdao/Chapter of St. Paul's Cathedral.

Bembibre and Strlič are scientists from the University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage. Many people might find the aroma of an old, yellowing book nostalgic, but for Bembibre and Strlič, it can be so much more.

For them, what we smell is just as much a part of our heritage as what we see or hear — and they’re on a mission to preserve it.

Matija Strlič smelling a 17th-century archival document at the National Archives of The Netherlands. Photo via Bembibre and Strlič, used with permission.

Though the first thing to come to mind when imagining a "historic odor" might be something like London’s Great Stink, odors don’t just need to be exceedingly unpleasant to be historically relevant. Anyone born after 1960 might get a whiff of childhood nostalgia when smelling Play-Doh’s sweet, yet pungent aroma, for example. Bembibre and Strlič want to create a scientific way to describe those kinds of smells.

For their latest work, the pair used both high-tech chemistry and an old-fashioned human nose to document the smell of books.

Volunteers were asked to describe either the aroma of the cathedral library (woody, smoky, vanilla) or antique books (chocolate, burnt, mothballs). Bembibre and Strlič then combined these descriptors with analyses of the faint, airborne scent-laden chemicals (known as VOCs) that the items or locations were giving off.

The pair then synthesized these findings into the Historic Book Odour Wheel, which pairs the chemical signatures and human descriptors together. Using it, you can see that a book with a rich caramel smell might be impregnated with the chemical furfural or one with an old-clothing funk might be giving off the chemical hexanal.

This wheel is a step toward creating a more standardized scientific vocabulary around aromas, which could be useful for many areas, not just books. Museums, for instance, could use this kind of chemical analysis to build scent profiles of modern cultural attractions or reverse engineer the smell of some long-gone food, event, or time.

"By documenting the words used by the visitors to describe a heritage smell, our study opens a discussion about developing a vocabulary to identify aromas that have cultural meaning and significance,” said Bembibre in a press release.

Museums and organizations are already embracing scent as a part of our heritage.

The Jorvik Viking Centre in York, England, for example, used scents to recreate the authentic aroma of 1,000-year old Vikings. On the sweeter-smelling side of things, the town of Grasse, located in the hills of the French riviera, is pushing UNESCO to officially recognize their centuries-old perfumeries.

A worker sits up to her neck in rose petals at the Molinard perfume factory in Grasse. Photo from 1955. Photo by George W. Hales/Fox Photos/Getty Images

In 2001, Japan’s Environmental Ministry created a list of 100 natural and cultural sites with especially beautiful or poignant scents, such as the smell of sulfurous hot springs, lavender blossoms, or grilled eel.

“We hope that this will raise awareness of people at the local level and lead to a rediscovery of fragrant areas and their preservation,” said ministry official Tetsuo Ishii at the time.

“Our knowledge of the past is odourless,” the authors write in their paper. But our lives aren’t.

Extracting the smell of a 18th-century bible in the Spangle Bedroom at Knole House. Photo via National Trust/James Dobson.

Perhaps it’s fitting for us to finally consider odors as part of our historical heritage, given their special relationship with memory. Unlike sight, sound, or touch, our olfactory bulbs have direct connections to the parts of the brain that control emotion and memory. This could be why research has shown that odor memories are often unusually vivid and emotional.

“Every day we encounter hundreds of smells, and they have an impact on how we think, feel and behave," said the authors in an email. Though we tend to ignore them, we can all conjure up personal, emotional memories through smells, whether it's the scent of cherry blossoms, your dad's cologne, or even opening up a special book.

The authors are now inviting other scientists, philosophers, and researchers to talk about what a heritage smell archive would look like. Perhaps it’d be made up of physical samples or detailed chemical signatures or stories of human life. Perhaps all of the above.

Their work was published in the journal Heritage Science.

Most Shared
via bfmamatalk / facebook

Where did we go wrong as a society to make women feel uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public?

No one should feel they have the right to tell a woman when, where, and how she can breastfeed. The stigma should be placed on those who have the nerve to tell a woman feeding her child to "Cover up" or to ask "Where's your modesty?"

Breasts were made to feed babies. Yes, they also have a sexual function but anyone who has the maturity of a sixth grader knows the difference between a sexual act and feeding a child.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Instagram / JLo

The Me Too movement has shed light on just how many actresses have been placed in positions that make them feel uncomfortable. Abuse of power has been all too commonplace. Some actresses have been coerced into doing something that made them uncomfortable because they felt they couldn't say no to the director. And it's not always as flagrant as Louis C.K. masturbating in front of an up-and-coming comedian, or Harvey Weinstein forcing himself on actresses in hotel rooms.

But it's important to remember that you can always firmly put your foot down and say no. While speaking at The Hollywood Reporter's annual Actress Roundtable, Jennifer Lopez opened up about her experiences with a director who behaved inappropriately. Laura Dern, Awkwafina, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong'o, and Renee Zellweger were also at the roundtable.

Keep Reading Show less
popular

Life for a shelter dog, even if it's a comfortable shelter administered by the ASPCA with as many amenities as can be afforded, is still not the same as having the comfort and safety of a forever home. Professional violinist Martin Agee knows that and that's why he volunteers himself and his instrument to help.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Courtesy of Macy's

In many ways, 18-year-old Idaho native, Hank Cazier, is like any other teenager you've met. He loves chocolate, pop music, and playing games with his family. He has lofty dreams of modeling for a major clothing company one day. But one thing that sets him apart may also jeopardize his future is his recent battle against a brain tumor.

Cazier was diagnosed in 2015. When he had surgery to remove the tumor, he received trauma to his brain and lost some of his motor functionality. He's been in physical, occupational, and speech therapy ever since. The experience impacted Cazier's confidence and self-esteem, so he's been looking for a way to build himself back up again.

"I wanted to do something that helped me look forward to the future," he says.

Enter Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children battling critical illnesses, providing them a chance to make the impossible possible. The organization partnered with Macy's to raise awareness and help make those wishes a reality. The hope is that the "wish effect" will improve their quality of life and empower them with the strength they need to overcome these illnesses and look towards the future. That was a particularly big deal for Cazier, who had been feeling like so many of his wishes weren't going to be possible because of his critical illness.

"In the beginning, it was hard to accept that it would be improbable for me to accomplish my previous goals because my illness took away so many of my physical abilities," says Cazier. His wish of becoming a model also seemed out of reach.

But Macy's and Make-A-Wish didn't see it like that. Once they learned about Cazier's wish, they knew he had to make it come true by inviting him to be part of the magical Macy's holiday shoot in New York.

Courtesy of Macy's

Make-A-Wish can't fulfill children's wishes without the generosity of donors and partners like Macy's. In fact, since 2003, Macy's has given more than $122 million to Make-A-Wish and impacted the lives of more than 2.9 million people.

Cazier's wish experience was beyond what he could've imagined, and it filled him with so much joy and confidence. "It is like waking up and discovering that you have super powers. It feels amazing!" he exclaims.

One of the best parts about the day for him was the kindness everyone who helped make it happen showed him.

"The employees of Macy's and Make-A-Wish made me feel welcome, warm, and cared for," he says. "I am truly grateful that even though they were busy doing their jobs, they were able to show kindness and compassion towards me in all of the little details."

He also got to spend part of the shoot outdoors, which, as someone who loves climbing, hiking, and scuba-diving but has trouble doing those activities now, was very welcome.

Courtesy of Macy's

Overall, Cazier feels he grew a lot during his modeling wish and is now emboldened to work towards a better quality of life. "I want to acquire skills that help me continue to improve in these circumstances," he says.

You can change the lives of more kids like Cazier just by writing a letter to Santa and dropping it in the big red letterbox at Macy's (you can also write and submit one online). For every letter received before Dec. 24, 2019, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. By writing a letter to Santa, you can help a child replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy, and anxiety with hope.

Believe
True
Macy's