Recent discussions of remote, online teaching of classes in Special Collections have brought attention to the thrill associated with getting an up-close close and tactile experience of old books and manuscripts. This is regrettably a lack that we will have to accept and find work-arounds for in this Brave New World of a global pandemic. And it's not just the books that we will miss handling, since our Special Collections has in recent years pushed also in the direction of adding craft related "text technologies" that speak to the various facets of meaning that can be derived from the manufacture and decoration of old media. In-person visits to Special Collections have become a sought after feast for the eyes, for touch, and also (we are frequently told) for the nose.
In an attempt to engage the sense of smell of remote students, Special Collections is now considering the creation of a distributable class set of scratch-and-sniff patches that will allow students an olfactory experience of accumulated centuries of reading. Fragrances include: oiled leather; pipe tobacco; charcoal brazier; incense; eau de toilette; oil lamp; musty garret, farm livestock, litter box, and basement flood.
“This is one of those things that has been missing from the digital experience” said Special Collections Librarian Madam Pince. “We want students to be able to engage with our holdings directly and not through a screen. We need to allow students to encounter literature the way it was in past times. For example a recent class on Emily Dickinson was encourages to take notes on small pieces of paper taken from torn envelopes. For too long Special Collections has been held back by a public fear of petting, sniffing, licking, and chewing our holdings. And besides, everyone knows that what’s really driving interest in the History of the Book is nostalgia for that old book smell.”
A recent student essay on the secret scents within a cookbook concluded that the 19th-century owner either had an overwhelming preference for garlic, or poisoned her husband with arsenic. Although a class presentation demonstration did result in several hospitalizations, the project did manage to turn a few heads in the College's administration. “This acquisition takes the collection in an exciting new direction” claimed Professor Snape, a member of Oberlin College’s Potions Department. “We hope that – after spending some time with the various odors in the Rare Book vault, students will be inspired to create their own scents in the Potions Lab, perhaps bringing the impact of fragrance to term papers on the Great Fire of London, the Black Death, or vermiculture. The possibilities are really endless.”