What do old books smell like?

There’s an important scene in my new novel that takes place in an antiquarian bookstore. I was working on the scene the other day, trying to bring it to life. Specifically I was trying to figure out what old books smell like. Dusty? Yes. Leathery? Sometimes. Honey? No, but I felt sure there was something sweet about the aroma. What was the missing ingredient?

Image by Luc Parret from Pixabay

I own a number of old books, so I tried sniffing them. But that didn’t get me anywhere. Except I began to sneeze a lot.

Then I thought, why not google it? Lo and behold, it turns out that there is actually a scientific study underway to document the smells of old books. In fact, there is something called a Historic Book Odor Wheel. (There is also a group of people known as library smellers.)

The science of old books

According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, a heritage science team from the University of London presented an assortment of people with eight different smells. One of the smells was an historic books scent (unlabeled). The other aromas ranged from coffee to fish. Participants were given a list of 21 descriptive words they could use to describe the different aromas. (Though they could add in their own words, if they wanted.)

The words most often used to describe old books were chocolate, coffee, old, woody, smoky and earthy. Which was good to know, except that none of those described the missing word I was trying to find.

You know how aggravating that is? When you’re trying to pinpoint a word and you can’t figure it out?

The missing piece

So I kept on thinking, and I found myself remembering a story my grandfather used to tell about a friend of his who had a drinking problem. The friend’s wife forbade him to have any liquor in the house, but he got around her by drinking the vanilla from the pantry. Vanilla has a high alcohol content.

I researched further and it turns out that, according to the International League for Antiquarian Booksellers, “lignin, which is present in all wood-based paper, is closely related to vanillin. As it breaks down, the lignin grants old books that faint vanilla scent.”

Voila! That was the scent I was trying to pin down. Vanilla!

How about you? What do you think old books smell like?

Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove mystery series. Her stories have been published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The MWA anthology, Crime Hits Home, in which she has a story, just won an Anthony Award. She teaches novel-writing at Gotham Writers and is on the staff of the New York Write to Pitch Conference. www.susanjbreen.com


  1. Susan, I must admit that I’ve never given this much thought. Offhand, I would say dusty and musty (are they the same?). Maybe because I’m likely to start sneezing around dust I’ve never really been able to smell anything else.

  2. Hmmm…. Never thought of vanilla in relation! I think musty/earthy is the closest though those aren’t necessarily nice, and old books smell like every wonderful vacation I ever had. Maybe that’s the way to describe that smell! A memory word.

  3. I’d always assumed it was a mixture of human oil and dust. Your body excretes oils which is why archivists wear gloves when handling old things.

    To me it’s an earthy and dusty smell. Vanilla comes close.

  4. What a fascinating idea, and such a great detail to add to a scene. That’s why your books are so good!

  5. Susan this had me sniffing my shelves of old collectibles— yes! Among that earthy woody scent was a hint of vanilla—who knew?
    Thanks for pointing out the lengths writers go to for just the right evocative word.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *