After artist Rachael Morrison, 29, started working at the MoMA library, she’d joke that she was “smelling books” all day. She loves being surrounded by all these books in an increasingly digitized age—they already seem like artifacts. She began wondering what it would be like not to be able to smell them anymore. “When you read a book, you become immersed in this way that feels very special and individual,” she says. Unlike when you read something online, where “I always have this sense that whatever I am reading is being read by millions of other people.” So six months ago, she decided to spend her lunch breaks chronicling the unique scent of each book in the MoMA stacks.
There are 300,000 books in the collection. She’s smelled 150 so far. Each entry is logged in pencil in an accounting ledger. “It’s a daring idea,” says David Senior, a MoMA bibliographer and friend, “because some of our books smell really bad.”
Last year, in an article in the journal Analytical Chemistry, researchers led by a group from University College London’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage attempted to define the odor of old books as “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.” The smell of books comes from the volatile organic compounds that paper emits as it decays. But in truth, there are as many book smells as there are books: Paper can be made from any number of trees and treated with any number of chemicals, and many types of inks and glues have been used through the years. It also depends on where the books were stored.
Collected Papers on Museum Preparation and Installation of 1927 will be remembered in her notes as “armpit.” The 1967 American Folk Art in the Collection of the Newark Museum “smells gross; dog poop.” The Civic Value of Museums evokes “cigar smoke and tea.”
Morrison’s effort, she says, is rooted in capturing the ephemeral. “Smelling books is really nostalgic for me—I am often reminded of my grandparents’ homes, or libraries where I used to go when I was a child.”
And she’s not alone: Bob Stein of the Institute for the Future of the Book has been listening to people worry about e-book odorlessness since the days of CD-roms. “These smells have an evocative power, especially for people who grew up loving books,” he notes. Morrison wonders if, one day in the future, when all text is digital, “will we think it’s strange or even gross that books once had a smell?”