Something is Missing

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Jackie Hemond

Jackie Hemond

Something is missing in the temporary library at Ffyler Place. It’s the pungent smell of old books. Since most library patrons are interested in reading recently published books, public libraries are “new book” libraries. Most public libraries are also “older book” libraries with classics such as Huckleberry Finn and other books which have aged in place on the shelf, books too good to be de-accessioned. Since the temporary library at Ffyler Place has little storage space, it is really only a “new book” library. (We also have new audiobooks, movies, magazines and digital content.) Other than the sizable collection of literary classics in my office, we do not have older books. As we cull the shelves of older “new” materials, we pack and store them for our return to the real library. It would be hard to find an old book smell at our current location.

What makes that old book smell? Midsummer dreams, flights of fancy, and the remains of bookworms? In truth, the smell comes from volatile organic compounds made from the paper, ink, and adhesives in a book, such as acetic acid, benzaldehyde, butanol, furfural, octanal, methoxyphenyloxime, and other multi-syllabled words. The scent differs from book to book depending upon a book’s exposure. Smoke, water damage, pressed flowers, as well as bookworm remains, add to a book’s aroma. Books from Mark Twain’s personal library still retain the smell of his cigars, and some of his books open to a strand or two of his white hair. Writings in margins, oils from fingers and other DNA traces add more flavors and fragrances.

Historical preservation researchers and students from Columbia University have been scrutinizing the smells in the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan, built in 1906 by John Pierpoint Morgan, the Gilded Age banker and financier, to house his collections and books. The project’s goal is to convey the building’s history through its smell. And what smells! The Morgan Library is a heady aroma of calf-skin volumes, Circassian walnut shelves, Havana cigars, and sweat from bankers who were locked overnight in the library by Morgan to force them to agree on economic measures to save the economy.

The head researcher of the Morgan project denies that he is re-creating that “old-book” smell, but instead, he is experimenting with a new way to look at history. However, the International Flavors and Fragrance Company, a perfume company, is analyzing the molecules of smell from the Morgan Library. The plan is to bottle that particular old-book smell which contains a certain “je ne sais quoi”… perhaps one could say Musty with overtones of vanilla flowers, almonds and an Havana cigar or rather, just Morgan No.5.

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