As It Happens

Researchers bury their noses in old books at New York library to find its original scent

Researchers at Columbia University are sniffing dozens of books and materials to find an old library's original scent.
Columbia students with Carlos Benaim (Master Perfumer, International Flavors & Fragrances), smelling a 16th century book at the Morgan Library & Museum. (Jorge Otero-Pailos)

Read Story Transcript

Researchers at Columbia University are sniffing dozens of books and materials at the Morgan Library & Museum as part of an experiment. 

Over the past year, the group has been trying to figure out how the library used to smell, and recreate the odour from when it was built in 1906. 

The group is teaming up with curators at the Morgan Library & Museum and a master perfumer and chemist from the International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF). Together, they hope to launch the scent they come up with back into the library. 

Jorge Otero-Pailos, a professor of Historic Preservation at Columbia University, is leading the project. He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off from New York: 

Carol Off: Professor Otero-Pailos, what does the Morgan Library smell like? 
Professor Jorge Otero-Pailos, of the Historic Preservation program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture (Columbia University)

Jorge Otero-Pailos: Well, it smells very different than it used to smell when it was built in 1906. The library has undergone a lot of changes and it's been remodeled and restored. One of the things that makes a library is that it smells like books. But in this particular case, the library underwent a renovation where the books were put behind glass. So, that's something striking when you go in ... you don't smell the books. 

CO: What do you think it smelled like in 1906? 

JOP: Well, we're trying to find out. We're in the midst of a very experimental research project to try to figure that out. We are using different types of technologies where we're sampling the books (and) the tapestry from the 16th century. We've sampled the cigars that J.P. Morgan didn't get to smoke. He was an avid cigar smoker but there were some that he didn't get to before his death and those were in the collection. From all of those materials, we're trying to get as scientifically as we can to an approximation of what it might of smelled like. 

A glass dome atop a copy of a 16th-century book. Researchers are using this piece of equipment to capture molecules and air from materials. (Christine Nelson)

CO: Why do you want to know what the library smelled like in 1906? 

JOP: I work with historic buildings and historic preservation. Part of what we do is try to communicate with the public the relevance and historic buildings to our lives. Part of what we do in the Columbia Historic Preservation Program and part of what I do is to try to bring these old objects and old buildings back into the public consciousness. 

Carlos Benaim, a master Perfumer with the International Flavors & Fragrances, smells one of J.P. Morgan's old cigars. (Christine Nelson)

CO: What's the science? How are you actually collecting these smells? 

JOP: What we're doing is putting a glass dome over the objects or pieces of the library (like) the tapestry from the 16th century, the fireplace or the bookshelves. In that glass dome, there's a little ... almost like a hair ... coated in a gel. If you zoom in microscopically into that gel, that gel looks like a spiderweb. Through that spiderweb, we're actually sucking air through it. The reason why objects smell is because they're actually giving off pieces of themselves. The molecules from the objects go into our nose. What that little gel does is trap all those molecules, and then we take it to the lab to analyse that. 

Jorge Otero-Pailos smell a bookcase in Pierpont Morgan's study at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York. (Christine Nelson)

CO: How will you use these smells once you've got them? 

JOP: We're very interested in the fact that the books have been placed behind glass. We're very interested in that 1907 moment when J.P. Morgan was there with all the captains of industry. We're doing research on who was there. What did they smell like? What does a person smell like when they're in panic? There's a very distinct signature to body odour when you're panicking. We're also doing a lot of really deep research into the environment. What did the air outside of the library smell like? Is there a different type of pollution up in the air? 

What we hope to do is to put it back in the space in some way. This is very experimental and very daring of the (Morgan) Library to be collaborating with us. The idea is to really convey it to the public and to share this research and this information. 

Jorge Otero-Pailos and Carol Off`s conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to their full conversation above. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?