A smell can evoke memories of a certain time, place or experience – now scientists at University College London are documenting scents as a way of recording culturally significant artefacts. Helen Drew explains.
We read them, we learn from them, some of us even write them. Books old or new, falling apart or unread. Here at University College London's Institute of Archaeology library it’s the largest collection of conservation-related books in London. But it's not just the words written on these pages that are important. According to scientists, the smell of these books has a significance that should also be recorded.
Smells have a big impact on our everyday life: how we feel, how we think and even how we behave, so we started looking into those smells that might have cultural value to us as a society and so our first challenge was to find, identify smell that we knew people valued and the smell of old books and historic libraries appeared as a very clear case.
In this lab scientists from UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage are collecting chemicals on a tiny sensor which they then pop into a machine to separate the individual chemical compounds. These chemicals can then be used to recreate that smell in the future.
What do you think of the smell of books?
They have a rather particular smell for sure and I think it’s lovely, it's sort of musty but it's… it's really enjoyable. I love the smell of old libraries.
The smell of a book becomes associated of what you read in the book, well that can lead to all sorts of associations and sometimes the smell is enough just to remind you of what a book is.
Always when you get a new book and it's like the new smell, it's a kind of part of the experience.
At the moment smell is rarely recorded.
If you go to a gallery or to a museum, a hundred percent of the time the objects communicate with you visually, you can see the shapes, you can see the colours but you cannot touch them and you cannot smell them.
There are also … archives to recreate the potpourri from a National Trust house in the 1700s, so that when visitors walk in, they're transported back in time. The whole project isn't just about recording smells but also the emotions they evoke.
Helen Drew, BBC London news.