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Nosy Researchers Are Sniffing a Vintage Library

It’s all an effort to recreate an olfactory landscape of yore

What did J.P. Morgan's library smell like in 1906? (Peter Burka - Flickr/Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

Every library has its own smell, from the slick scent of unopened books in a brand-new facility to the sweet, musty odor of old tomes. But is there a way to capture the scent of a particular library—or recreate how it once smelled? As Allison Meier reports for Hyperallergic, a group of researchers is trying to find out.

The experiments are under way at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. The library was once the private collection of legendary financier J.P. Morgan, who built it next door to his lavish Madison Avenue home between 1902 and 1906. Meier reports that the project came about thanks to a course being taught at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. The graduate program's experimental historic preservation class partnered with the Morgan and its curator of literary and historical manuscripts Christine Nelson, along with International Flavors and Fragrances master perfumer Carlos Benaim as part of an ongoing effort to figure out what the library smelled like when it first opened its doors and how to preserve that smellscape for the future.

To do so involves huffing everything from cigar boxes to textiles to, of course, books. They’re saving the smells, too, using a bell jar-like apparatus. As designer Paul Bennett explained on his blog in 2011, the tool is kind of like a “smell camera,” and it is placed on top of an object to record a copy of an odor's chemical composition. Headspace technology, as the technique is known as, is most often used by perfumers to capture rare smells without losing anything in translation or ruining the object being sniffed.

As the Loyola School Library notes, old books have a particular smell for a reason. As cellulose and lignin inside paper breaks down, different organic compounds are created, wafting out vanilla- and almond-like odors in addition to other, funkier smells. They all mix together to create a unique scent for every book that’s controlled by a host of factors like environmental conditions and the age and makeup of the paper itself.

So what did the Morgan smell like in 1906? The answer is part direct observation, part speculation. “Street smells from Gilded Age New York could have wafted through the windows, mingling with the collection of rare tomes from across various eras, and the cigar puffing of Morgan himself,” writes Meier—and students must carefully study what would have been in the library’s context to understand what it once might have smelled like.

The perfume pioneers hope their work will help future fragrance hunters—Meier writes that they will document their methods in the hopes of taking headspace technology out of the perfume bottle and into academia. Of course, there’s no way to go back in time and take a sniff, which means there’s no absolutely accurate way of profiling a long-gone olfactory landscape. The project might just be the next best thing, though—and might just encourage other people to bury their nose in an old book.

Editor's note, 3/7/17: This story has been updated to clarify that the ongoing project is being done thanks to Columbia University's experimental historic preservation graduate class, in partnership with the Morgan Library and Museum and IFF master perfumer Carlos Benaim.

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