“That Library Smell”

Published on March 30th, 2009 in: Issues, Smell-O-Rama |

By Jesse Roth

Say that to anyone and they will probably give you a puzzled look.

And why wouldn’t they? Libraries have never been known for their aromatic offerings. Depending on your childhood circumstances, libraries are remembered in various ways by various people. They could be that magical, inspiring place where librarians conducted story times and assisted you with crafts, or where mom took you for a weekly perusal of the children’s section in search of interesting titles to read at home. For others, the library was that vaguely stuffy, standard brick building with few windows where you were told to go after school to avoid being home alone while your mom or dad were still at work. The hope was that maybe you did some homework or got a head start on that upcoming project, but more than likely you were goofing off with friends or (in more recent times) surfing the Internet. No matter the story, nostalgic smells were rarely part of the equation.

old library

Thinking back to my own childhood memories of the library, I also have a hard time remembering the scent. I can remember the books on Tasmanian devils and Pablo Picasso from the juvenile nonfiction section that I loved, or how excited I was when I signed onto a library computer to use the Internet, something previously available only at school, and only for research purposes. To this day, I recall that I visited the Late Night with Conan O’Brien homepage and Mr. Showbiz, a long-gone entertainment site. I wanted information about A Season in Purgatory, the television mini-series that introduced me to the joys of Patrick Dempsey long before his overexposed comeback on Grey’s Anatomy. I even remember my “classic” library experience in high school with my father, as we made the mistake of getting into a small argument while he helped me research Benito Mussolini for a school project. What we thought were hushed tones were actually voices loud enough to summon the mighty librarian, who promptly “shushed” us and reminded us that we were seated in the Quiet Zone. I resented her butting in until I reached college and finally understood the benefits of a quiet library for studying.

In thinking back through my past with libraries, the best I can come up with when thinking of a distinct scent for my local branches is “musty,” a smell that typically emanated from the books I’d select. It was the smell of attics, antique and used book stores, and one that made me wonder how long it had been since my book was last checked out. Or what had happened to it along the way. Other than the odd but not unpleasant smell of the tomes, I simply cannot conjure up a scent that truly defined my past library experience.

Of course, I didn’t realize at that time that one day, I would find myself spending far too much time in library branches. Somewhere on the journey of my life, I made the decision to base my career in libraries. After schooling and some real world training, I found myself employed at a large branch in a working-class community not far from a major city, one that struggled to stay afloat long before the current economic crisis. It was during this time that I finally discovered the other scents that define what the library is currently.

On a typical day at the reference desk, I get a whiff of a variety of scents, from the pleasant to the wretched. Many times it’s that distinct smell of the unwashed, the downtrodden, who find themselves taking refuge on the street once the library locks its doors for the night. The foul odor is sometimes masked by cigarette smoke or alcohol, but is no less pungent and disconcerting. Mostly harmless and sometimes entertaining in their engaging exchanges with staff, they hang around the library conversing or chatting, with some of the recently homeless, who you sometimes see working diligently on computers to apply for jobs and escape the fate of their more entrenched-in-the-lifestyle brethren.

old books by nathan nelson
Photo © Nathan Nelson

The smell of alcohol is not unique to the homeless population. Rough times have taken their toll on many patrons, some of whom show up inebriated and irritable, asking for help on a resumé or simply looking for someone to release their frustrations on. I remember one late Tuesday afternoon helping a confused, yet otherwise respectable-looking, middle-aged woman with her cover letter. At some point, she felt a need to apologize for her breath, which vaguely smelled of alcohol (a detail I did not even think to zero in on until she mentioned it). She claimed she had just come from a party, but it seemed too early in the day for the average unemployed person to imbibe. Though it explained her spacey state at the desk, my remaining time with her made me incredibly sad over her circumstance. I hoped that things on the employment end would turn around for her, but my greater wish was that she did not let this burgeoning problem with the bottle make a bad situation worse.

Along with alcohol and sweat, there’s another distinct smell that will have me depressed in no time once it crosses my nose: cat food. That fishy, malodorous substance first crossed my nose during an internship at a library while still in school and for the longest time, I could not figure out why I always seemed to smell it around the elderly patrons I assisted. Later on, another library worker volunteered that some older adults have been known to eat cat food in order to stave off hunger on reduced incomes. It’s something I had heard before but thought was some sort of bad joke. As I worked with this population, however, it was hard to write off that unmistakable odor as anything other than a poignant truth.

Of course, I am fortunate in my own life that these smells are ones I can leave behind once I leave the desk. In fact, they are often masked by far more comforting and pleasant smells as I head over to my desk in the backroom offices. Many days will find at least one or two people cooking up something in our break room kitchen, likely to share it with the rest of the staff later in the day. Other times there will be edible gifts from patrons and other staff, always happy to pawn off baked creations in order to spare their own waistlines. It is this wonderful smell of food that conjures up other memories of mine: memories of my own family and friends and times we cooked and bonded together. As I continue my career far from the comfort of communities and libraries I grew up in, it is this smell that I look forward to each day, for it is a reminder of how lucky I have been on my own journey in life, and how I hope that in some small way I can assist the patrons at the desk as they hope to return to some similar place of comfort and acceptance.

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