The chemical composition of "old book smell"

It starts with lignin — a compound that makes up the cell walls of plants. Turns out, it's also closely related (chemical-structure-wise) to vanillin, the stuff that makes vanilla smell so vanilla-y. Given that books are full of the broken-down cell walls of trees, a big part of what we think of as "old book smell" is actually a scent similar to vanilla.


  1. I do like vanilla, and old books. Remember next time you bake a cake with vanillin: it’s most likely engineered from wood. Go for the real stuff, Vanilla planifolia has more than 200 aromatic components involved in giving it’s unique signature.

    Also interesting: there’s a whole branch of library science dedicated to the study of dust.
    And Michelle Obama might now know about it, since the exhibition here in the Coláiste na Tríonóide Long Hall where she had a look on her ancestors origins has a nice display with library dust SEM photography on that. :)

  2. I like old book smell and hate vanilla. It’s nasty, and it’s just so overwhelming. I can’t imagine how the scent of one and the vileness of the other could be at all alike.

    1. Most vanilla scents are very harsh. In perfume most “vanilla” scents are not even based on vanillin anymore, and are isolated to make them much stronger. There are actually several perfumes based on the scent profile of old books! I’m quite fond of that smell, myself. It’s definitely drier and more subtle than the wet humid vanilla scent. Personally I like the smell of actual vanilla itself, but it has a lot of other scent components as well going on.

    2.  I love the smell of vanilla and love to smoke grass, so I assume you don’t smoke grass.

      Just kidding.

  3. Makes sense.

    Scotch is matured in oak, and that often gives it vanilla notes. But I’ve had many decent whiskies that have also had that musty “old book” smell.

    It’s not everywhere, but it’s not an uncommon note. A little “old library” often crops up in tasting notes.

    Next up – tannins!  Important because they are used in tanning leather. Also found in oak. Gives you the leathery notes of some whiskies…

    I’ll stop there. I could go on for quite a while on this subject…  You’d be surprised how much flavour there is in oak!

    1. Please go on.

      If you could solve one puzzle for me, I’d be glad: why do some Islays actually tase of salt and Iodine, while the levels of Na+, Cl- and I- are actually below the (physiological) limit of detection by our far to blunt senses?

  4. “Given that books are full of the broken-down cell walls of trees”

    Well, your cheap wood-pulp books at least. A good old vellum book has completely different olfactory experience.

  5. Oh, now that the connection has been suggested, I can totally [smell] that!

    Unless your books are stored in say, southern Indiana. In which case, they just smell like mildew.

    1. Yeah, in San Francisco, the smell of books was indistinguishable from the smell of the bottom of the laundry hamper.

  6. a cool project about this very thing:

  7. Most of the ‘vanilla’ you experience is made from lignin – it’s the cheap industrial substitute flavoring.

  8. Vanillin isn’t the primary chemical that causes old books to smell the way they do, there is just such a small amount of vanillin present in the make-up of a book. The scent is actually a collection of factors, including all of these chemicals that are used in the printing and for production of the paper as well as the glue in the binding, all breaking down over time. Of course, environmental factors play a huge part in this, but the point is that it’s all of these factors, not so much the lignin used in production of the paper.

    Here’s a neat informative video:

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