April 19, 2017

New “odor wheel” may help book conservators


Historic book odor wheel developed by researchers at the Institute of Sustainable Heritage in the UK. Via Heritage Science.

While antique booksellers and conservators have long relied on a book’s odor to help them determine important information about its origin and method of manufacture, they’ve never had a concrete way of quantifying that information — until now.

As the Guardian’s Claire Armitstead reports, researchers at University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Heritage, noticing the lack of a systematized scent vocabulary for book conservators, have developed a “historic book odour wheel” meant to “connect identifiable chemicals with people’s reactions to them.”

In a paper published in Heritage Science, UCL researchers Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič combined results from studies at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the National Trust’s Knole House, and others in which untrained subjects identified the scents in various antique books to create a chart connecting the compounds occurring in the papers with their associated smells—from “chocolatey” and “leathery” to “woody” and “moldy.”

Much like the coffee taste and wine aroma charts common at roasting houses and wineries, the book odor wheel functions as a helpful but by no means exact tool for identifying the age and provenance of old books. Strlič, however, sees the project as the first step in a larger process of building a “theoretical framework” mapping the way “smells hold cultural value for us as a society.” As she told Armitstead, “we know very well how to analyse the chemicals, but what they mean, and the emotions that trigger, is a completely different matter.” While the book odor wheel may end up being a valuable “diagnostic tool” for conservators, for these researchers, it’s one step in much broader investigations.



Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.