The scientists at Oxford University have been trying to capture the smell of ancient books for visitors planning to attend a forthcoming Bodleian Library exhibition. Dr Alexy Karenowska has working at the Bodleian for the Sensational Books exhibition – an exploration of books in all five senses which was due to start but has now been postponed due to the coronavirus lockdown.The scientists at Oxford University have been trying to capture the smell of ancient books for visitors planning to attend a forthcoming Bodleian Library exhibition. Dr Alexy Karenowska has working at the Bodleian for the Sensational Books exhibition – an exploration of books in all five senses which was due to start but has now been postponed due to the coronavirus lockdown.
The scientist is a magnetician who is also the Director of Technology at The Institute for Digital Archaeology. She said: “No two books smell exactly alike,” as she inspected a rare copy of Shakespeare’s 1623 First Folio. “There are muted sweet notes of benzaldehyde, a chemical evocative of maraschino cherries, and 2-nonenal, known as mouldy furniture smell to odour experts, but there are also strong traces of tobacco.” The book is thought to have been owned by 18th century Shakespeare scholar, Edmond Malone. It is understood the first-of-its-kind olfactory component of the Bodleian’s exhibition will permit visitors to experience the aromas of a huge range of rarities. The evocative aromas are extracted using non-invasive techniques specially developed by the IDA. Books are placed in a sealed glass container through which air is circulated using lubricant-free fans.
The air passes through several filters of increasing fineness for up to 36 hours, trapping the compounds that carry a book’s distinctive scents. The filter packs are then sent to the IDA laboratory where they are chemically dissected to determine what compounds have been captured. They are then crushed, powdered and suspended in a neutral liquid base. Medical grade nebulisers are used to deliver the liquefied scents. The IDA wants to allow exhibition visitors to enjoy multiple aromas in rapid succession. Book scents are created by technician George Altshuler in the IDA laboratory. One of the oldest manuscripts which could be in the exhibition is also one of the Bodleian’s greatest treasures: a 1217 copy of Magna Carta. The parchment document was kept in Oseney Abbey, Oxford, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century.
Scientists preparing for the exhibition say the Magna Carta is a ‘delicious document’ – ‘an aromatic mix of moist wheat bread and beach sand.’ The Bodleian exhibition, however, will not be limited strictly to books. The IDA team is also recreating the scents of famous libraries, including the Bodleian’s own historic Duke Humphrey Reading Room. Dr Karenowska said that the Duke Humphrey scent will be “built up from actual items recovered by library staff from the reading room itself, including cedar wood shelving, leather desk coverings and discarded bits of old books.” For Roger Michel, executive director of the IDA, this was the most compelling scent. He added: “One whiff took me right back to my student days there in the 1980s.” To complement the Bodleian exhibition, IDA olfactionists claim they are also extracting the scent from a 1616 First Quarto copy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. They want it to be developed into a traditional perfume scent and sold for the benefit of charity. Every bottle will contain a few molecules of “the western world’s most romantic play” as Mr Michel says.