March 1, 2017

Is it just us, or does it smell like millennia of good reading in here?


Just when it might have seemed the present was running out of ways to resemble the Gilded Age, a professor of architecture working with Manhattan’s Morgan Library and Museum has found a new one: by smell.

The fact is that for all but the most exceedingly recent sliver of human history, the world has been a festering odorama that few born into our world of daily showers and corporate stinkshaming would happily endure. But now that lemony freshness is the default, Jorge Otelo-Pailos, a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), is seeking to recapture some of the bygone fragrance of the early twentieth century for a class he’s co-teaching with neuroscientist Andreas Keller, perfumer Carlos Benaim, and chemist Subha Patel. And perhaps because the jury’s still out on whether human beings are anything nobler than just morally troubled stench-bags, the professors have chosen something far nicer to train their students’ noses on: books.

A splendid Hyperallergic article by Allison Meier traces out the full story, which begins with Otela-Pailos seeking a way to get his historic preservation students to “rethink how we can preserve objects in a creative way that reengages people with those objects.” His solution includes bringing his students to the Morgan, completed in 1906, to investigate the aromatic subtleties created by the coexistence of so many antiquarian books (the collection includes some that are as much as 1,500 years old), made by differing methods from a wide variety of materials. Meier writes:

In the conservation lab, the convened group was remarking on the differences between two 1512 books, one with a more chemical scent. It turned out that it had been rebound much more recently, the fragrance of its fresher leather giving away the later repair. An array of old and new book adhesives, along with specimens of animal skin and beeswax, were arranged on a metal table, so the students could use scent to better understand all the pieces that go into building a book. A large paper block book had a distinct smell from an older vellum-bound book, their shifting bouquets of binding, adhesive, and paper acting as a chronology of the print industry changing over time.

The students perform their investigations with both their own noses and a delightful, stethoscope-looking thingie called “headspace technology,” which gathers up miniscule, scent-bearing particles that can later be analyzed through mass spectrometry. (Brand names for headspace technology are, by the way, phenomenally good, and include ScentTrekJungle Essence, and, best of all, Aromascope.)

The GSAPP students are joining in a fine tradition of bibliolfaction. In 2010, artist, filmmaker, and then-Museum of Modern Art librarian Rachael Morrison devoted some months to a performance called “Smelling the Books,” in which she took a deep whiff of each item in the museum library’s collection, proceeding through the catalogue in order of Library of Congress Classification number. More recently, the Sweet Tea Apothecary unveiled Dead Writers, a perfume meant to smell like old books (and it’s hardly the only one).



Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.