There’s something special about the scent of books. To true book lovers, it’s instantly recognizable—walk into a used bookstore, and it smells like home. It invigorates. It envelops. It’s so moving that a senior library assistant at MoMA devised a performance art piece called Smelling the Books, in which she will smell and record the scent of every book in the MoMA Library collection. It’s the scent of a secret, of untold worlds opening up before your very eyes—and nose.

But what is the source of this familiar scent? One part of it is lignin, a chemical compound present in plant cells and thus in much paper. Over time, the lignin in paper starts to oxidize, or break down, which causes the paper to yellow. Without an original sample of the paper—that is, one in which the lignin has not oxidized—the effect is not always immediately obvious. However, it is often more readily apparent if you compare the color of the edges of the text block to the center, due to the increased contact with oxygen at the edges of the book. In short, the source of that familiar scent is quite unromantic—it’s degradation. And lignin can be used to create artificial vanillin, which might help explain why the scent is so pleasant.

Generally speaking, any scent coming from a book is going to be as a result of some sort of chemical reaction (preservationists and conservationists quickly learn to follow their noses to identify problem areas in collections, particularly with regards to photographs and moving pictures), and not all of this is as a result of the inherent vice of the materials. Take, for instance, mold—the bane of many a great library. Mold likes warm, humid air, which is one reason libraries spend so money on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems; environmental control and stability is key. Once mold enters into and spreads throughout a collection, either through the introduction of a single damaged book or as a result of a larger disaster, it can be extremely difficult to eradicate; mold can often lay dormant, blooming (or, less poetically, sporing) again later as a result of fluctuations in temperature and/or  humidity—when conditions are right.

Mold damage/foxing mainly on page edges. (Stacey Swinehart, “DSC_0005,” January 12, 2010, Creative Commons Attribution.)

In this case, the damage has spread throughout the individual pages, not to mention between them. (Shannon Ramos, “Turn of the century mail order or salesman sample antique clothing catalog,” May 20, 2008, Creative Commons Attribution.)

When dealing with mold damage, triage is important—for instance, in the case of personal collections (I’m mostly ignoring institutional collections here for now, since institutions have greater resources for dealing with such problems), it is usually better to simply cut your losses, get rid of the books, and purchase new copies. However, in the case of rare or unique books, there are some things you can do. (Note that although I’m providing a brief overview of some common techniques, this is by no means meant to be a comprehensive guide—nor am I, at this stage in my career, an expert on best practices. Research should be done before embarking upon any preservation/conservation treatment of rare or unique materials.)

First, it’s imperative that the affected items be dried out. Drying techniques differ depending on the materials involved, as well as the sheer volume of the collection, but what is possibly most important to remember is that the books should not be left shut to dry. Blank copy paper can be interleaved between the pages, and in some cases (i.e., when it is not possible to deal with all damaged materials at one), freezing techniques can be employed. Once the books are dried, loose mold is be removed with a brush. Finally, cloth moistened with a bleach and water mixture is brushed over the affected pages (although it’s important that the pages not be soaked), and the book should be dried once again.

In all of this, paper books have been the focal point. But what about book lovers with e-readers? Never fear—there’s something for you, as well. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Scent of Books—for a mere suggested retail price of $28.99, you, too can enjoy the delightful aroma of a used book store (see also Wired’s coverage for some interesting related commentary from the Author’s Guild). Book-scent in a can; never let it be said that the vast wilderness of the internet failed you.


  • Just reading this post gets my nose going. That scent can sometimes be detected when entering a school as well. I too, find it is particularly strong and pleasing when going into a library. Always makes me want to read.

    Clare DoyleApril 7, 2011

Leave a Reply