Whats That Smell?

Dogs learn a lot by shoving their noses directly into unsuspecting people’s butts. One quick spelunk between your cheeks can identify your gender, your diet, your sexual partners, and a variety of details not normally mentioned in polite company. Dogs experience life through smell, whereas humans rely more on sight. This isn't to say that we ignore our sense of smell entirely. Writers love to evoke the scents of baking bread, the ocean, flowers, and of course that old book smell associated with libraries. 

I rarely come across an old book with an alluring smell. My work world is a cacophony of other, distinctly human scents.

I once met a homeless man who didn’t want to check out library books. He felt that they absorb people’s energy, and he didn’t want to take on the negativity of the folks who’d read them. I don’t believe in that, but books do absorb the scents of previous readers. (Unlike the dog, I don’t have to stick my face in their cracks to suss it out.) Romance novels often release flowery perfumes, which supports stereotypes about the women reading them. Some dirty westerns smell like unfiltered cigarette smoke which evokes a crusty, older man who has a fridge full of takeout containers. Cookbooks smell greasy, and alternative religion and the supernatural books sometimes fill the book drop with the scent of sandalwood, patchouli, and marijuana. There is something intimate about holding an item that made someone laugh, cry, hug it to their chest, use it for an ashtray, or helped them reach a new level of consciousness.

Library meeting rooms also house a cache of aromas. If I were blindfolded, I’d be able to tell what age storytimes had just taken place by the level of the diaper funk and the sour smell of spit up. Teen programs often smell like feet, Axe, and stale Fritos. After a meeting of genealogists, there’s more than a hint of Bengay and White Shoulders.  

Often the smell of a patron is an immediate indicator of his or her question. One who smelled strongly of urine wanted to know how to build composting toilets. Sunny Saturday mornings bring in the requests for auto repair manuals along with the faint waft of gasoline. I've also had patrons looking for gardening information who smell like cedar chips. My favorite, to date was a man who smelled like new leather. He was looking for photos of saddles because he wanted to try making one. He pulled out a wallet he'd just completed that said "one bad motherf**ker.”   Smells are physical evidence of library use. By the end of the day the collection of scents tells me more about the library’s use than a spreadsheet of numbers and use statistics. 

Time and again people have said libraries are going to become extinct. That smells like bullshit to me. 

-- Agnes T. Byrd

Editors note: We love stories about working in libraries. If you have one you'd like to share, send your pitch to me at geneambaum@gmail.com

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October 8, 2018 Walla Walla, WA
Walla Walla Rural Library District Staff Day (Gene)

November 15, 2018 Palm Beach, FL
Palm Beach County Library System (Gene)

November 16, 2018 Fort Lauderdale, FL
Southeast Florida Library Information Network (Gene)


Jan 25 - 28, 2019 Seattle, WA ALA Midwinter (Library COMIC Booth #726) (Gene)

March 1, 2019 Phoenix, AZ
Maricopa County Library District (Gene)

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June 21 - 24, 2019 Washington, DC
ALA Annual (Library COMIC booth) (Gene)

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