Cambridge’s Darwin Notebooks Assumed Stolen

By Ben Hamill - December 27 2020
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Cambridge’s Darwin Notebooks Assumed Stolen

In 2001, two Charles Darwin notebooks went missing from the Cambridge University Library. At the time, library staff didn’t think too much of the fact that the books could not be found, assuming they’d probably been incorrectly shelved somewhere in the massive building. But now, 20 years on, Deputy Director of Research Collections Mark Purcell says he’s convinced the books were stolen, not misplaced.

Purcell, during a recent conversation with CBC Radio host Carol Off, spoke about the advice the library had received from all manner of security and book trade specialists, including the U.K. police force, representatives of London’s prestige and historical book trade, and even international literary trade experts. The firm conclusion reached by everyone consulted with, said Purcell, was that the books had not gone missing by accident or mistake.

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20 Years Missing

Darwin’s so-called “Transmutation Notebooks” document the very beginnings of his theories on evolution, and contain an early hand-sketched version of his Tree of Life. The illustration depicts how different forms of life, ranging from bacteria to plants and animals, are all related to one another in such a way that each species can be traced back to the trunk of a single tree.

As for why it took the institution nearly two decades to reach the conclusion that the notebooks were probably misappropriated instead of mis-shelved, Purcell said the situation around the missing books was reviewed with intense scrutiny at the time. First noted as “not being present” in the winter of 2001, Darwin’s notebooks were eventually concluded missing.  This did not yet mean to say they had been taken unlawfully from the building, Purcell explained.

Since the members of staff tasked with searching for the missing books had a library made up of roughly 130 linear kilometers of shelving to contend with, not to mention 48 kilometres of shelves locked up in high-security safe rooms, they were intimately familiar with books being misplaced and/or mis-shelved, said Purcell. Though Darwin’s notebooks would have been classified as books belonging behind lock and key, he explained, their unknown whereabouts would have been considered rare, but certainly not a cause for alarm. 

Public Involvement Now Needed

As for the physical appearance of the books, Purcell described them as the size of a small postcard, with each roughly an eighth of an inch thick. And even though both books are available in digital format on Cambridge Digital Library, nothing could ever replace the original notebooks, emphasised the deputy director.

The hope is that by making an appeal to the public, such appeal may reveal where the books have been for the past 20 years.

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