smell of old books

Whether you’re a bookworm or not, you are undoubtedly familiar with the smell of old books. If nothing comes to your mind, just imagine entering a library or a store selling used books, and you will immediately remember this sweet scent of vanilla with the barely discernible bitterness of freshly grounded coffee. Unlike new book smell that is universally considered attractive, some people might find this smell nauseating, but even a more significant number of readers are literally addicted to it. Ever wondered why old books smell? Here is a scientific answer to this mystery of “smelling books” addiction!

What Do Old Books Smell Like? 

Do you know that old book smell has an official name? It’s bibliosmia, and it’s caused by the chemical breakdown of compounds within the paper. In other words, what we’re smelling is how the book is slowly dying!

The research has shown that organic materials in books (like fiber)—after being exposed to light, water, and heat for an extended period of time—release volatile organic compounds (or so-called VOCs). These compounds are responsible for the palette of old book smells, consisting of almonds and vanilla. The most important are toluene which produces sweet aromas, furfural which adds almond and coffee overtones, and vanillin. We are naturally prone to liking sweet aromas, so no wonder we like the old books smell! Now when your kids ask you, “Why do books smell good?” you know exactly what to answer!

The Science Behind the Smell of Old Books 

For science enthusiasts: here are two original research articles analyzing the smells of old books!

1. Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old Books  

2. Identification of volatile organic compounds emitted by a naturally aged book using solid-phase microextraction/gas chromatography/mass spectrometry  

Here is also a rendering of a series of studies on how people recognize old book smells (and why they like them so much)!

Check this video for further details about book smells! 


When we know what the compounds that produce the smell of old books are and what the old book smell chemical is, we can easily recreate it! That’s why we now can find a scented candle that smells like antique books or perfume that smells like books (e.g.,  Paperback from Demeter, “ A trip to your favorite library or used bookstore.“).

Paperback by Demeter

Book Smell Quotes for True Biblichor Lovers

“So there you have it, a lifetime of first smelling the books, they all smell wonderful, reading the books, loving the books, and remembering the books.”—Ray Bradbury

“Books smell and feel better. They have that wonderful thingness of turning the pages.”—Neil Gaiman

“The library would’ve cheered me up, most days. I loved the heavy oaken tables, the high walls stacked with books to the ceiling, the musty smell of old pages and the heavy brass fixtures that had gone dark with age and wear.”—Claudia Gray

“There was something about the smell of books, the ink-and-paper-and-leather scent, the way dust in a library seemed to behave differently from the dust in any other room it was golden in the light of the witchlight tapers, setting like pollen across the polished surfaces of long tables.”—Cassandra Clare

Is Smelling Books Bad for You?

Well, according to some researchers, it can be. Old books contain pathogenic spores, mold, fungi, and bacteria that can be harmful when breathed. There is no proof that breathing old books smell can be fatal; however, we should be a bit more careful with very old books and fumigate them.

So what if your books are too old and smell too bad? Here are some tips and suggestions on how to get musty, smoke, and mildew smell out of them.

How to Get Musty Smell Out of Books?

There are many tips on how to get the musty smell out of books, and the most popular one is to place dry books in an airtight container together with an open box of baking soda for a while (maybe a week or so). You can also try giving them a bit of fresh air or use clean kitty litter, newspapers, and dryer sheets and see what works best for you.

How to Get Smoke Smell Out of Books?

If you inherited a collection of books from your late uncle who loved smoking a cigar or two in his study, and now these books reek of smoke, here are the things you can do. Try leaving them in fresh air for a while, interleave the pages with paper towels, put the books in the freezer, or put them into an airtight container with clean kitty litter or any odor remover.

How to Get Mildew Smell Out of Books?

The smell of mildew in old books can be removed by placing them in a bin and using closet deodorizers. Leave the books in the bin for a while and replace the deodorizers after a while. For bad mildew cases, you can use baking soda together with deodorizers.

Why Are Old Books Great?

Well, the smell of old books is not the only great thing about them! First of all, buying old used books saves you heaps of money. Moreover, by buying used books, you make book publishing and distribution more sustainable while also acting environmentally friendly

Using e-books will deprive you of this wonderful smell, so that’s one more argument for buying and reading analog books! Here is an in-depth discussion of this acute question—what are the pros and cons of e-books?

If you have decided to buy more old books (for their smell and other benefits), BookScouter helps you find the best vendor with the most affordable prices!