MAXIS – Darwin’s personal library put online

Darwin’s personal library put online

June 24, 2011 Darwin?s personal library put online

Darwin’s personal scientific library, the majority of which is held at Cambridge University Library, has been digitised in a collaborative effort involving Cambridge, the Darwin Manuscripts Project at the American Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

In total, Darwin’s library amounted to 1480 books, of which 730 contain abundant research notes in their margins. These annotated books are now in the process of being digitized.

The first phase of this project has just been completed, with 330 of the most heavily annotated books launched online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library for all to read (http://www.biodive … arwinlibrary).

University Librarian Anne Jarvis said: “The Darwin collections are among the most important and popular held within Cambridge University Library. While there has been much focus on his manuscripts and correspondence, his library hasn’t always received the attention it deserves – for it is as he engaged with the ideas and theories of others that his own thinking evolved.”

Because Darwin’s evolutionary theory covered so many aspects of nature, reading served him as a primary source of evidence and ideas. Darwin once complained that he had become a ‘machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts’.

The pages of Darwin’s Library, smothered as they are in his tantalizing scrawl, give us a direct view of the great Darwinian intellectual machine in action. With the Charles Darwin Library online, now everyone can retrace how Darwin systematically used reading to advance his science.

Most of Darwin’s personal library rests at Cambridge University Library and at Down House. Although the majority of the books are scientific, some are humanities texts on subjects that Darwin transformed into scientific topics.

The series of transcriptions accompanying each page allows everyone to see which passages Darwin found relevant to his work, stimulated his thinking, or just annoyed him as he read the work of others.

For example, his friend Charles Lyell wrote in his famous Principles of Geology that there were definite limits to the variation of species. Darwin wrote alongside this: “If this were true adios theory” (see above image).

The online transcribed marginalia relies on the work of two scholars, Mario A. Di Gregorio and Nick Gill, published in the 1990s and now greatly enhanced by Gill. Finally, in addition to images of the books and transcribed jots, the information is fully indexed so that people can search for topics and ideas relevant to their interests or work.

The digitisation project was jointly sponsored by the JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) and National Endowment of the Humanities through a Transatlantic Digitization Collaboration Grant.

Provided by University of Cambridge (news : web)


Current Book List General Index Search Charles Darwin’s Library

How to use Charles Darwin’s Library

A Darwin’s Library transcription pane faces each page that Darwin marked or wrote notes on.

Entries in the pane have line numbers, such as lines 5-7. Count the lines of print from the top of the page to locate passages that interested Darwin. An upward arrow means that you count lines from the bottom of the page (lines 9-7).

In books scanned from Darwin’s personal copies you will see his writing. Other books are surrogates, which are bibliographically identical to those Darwin owned. Some books also have notes on loose inserted slips of paper.

Click the banner to reach the Current Book List and the General Index. Note that both Darwin’s annotations and the corresponding book passage are indexed on each page.

The pane uses a very few specialized terms and symbols:

editorial terms
annotation = words written by Darwin
score = lines alongside printed text
crossed = lines drawn through annotation
cancelled = wavy lines drawn through annotation
crossing-out = lines drawn through printed text

The transcription pane uses special characters to represent some elements of Darwin’s annotations. We have found that Internet Explorer (all versions) running on Windows XP may not correctly display these characters. If you are using Windows XP and have trouble viewing the transcriptions, please consider using another browser, such as Firefox.


Transatlantic Digitisation Collaboration Grant, Phase 1 sponsored by:

United Kingdom

JISC Joint Information Systems Committee of the Higher Education Founding Council of England & Wales (HEFCE) to Cambridge University Library and Natural History Museum (Award CCICP002)

United States

NEH National Endowment for the Humanities to Darwin Manuscripts Project of the American Museum of Natural History, with subaward to the Missouri Botanical Garden (Award PX-50026-09)

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the Charles Darwin’s Library BHL collection do not necessarily reflect those of the Joint Information Systems Committee or the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Cambridge University Library (

Natural History Museum, London (

Darwin Manuscripts Project (

The project wishes to express its gratitude to William Huxley Darwin for permission to reproduce the Darwin manuscripts.

Darwin’s Virtual Library: History & Scope

Charles Darwin’s Library is a digital edition and virtual reconstruction of the surviving books owned by Charles Darwin. In 1908, Charles Darwin’s son Francis transferred what he called the ‘Darwin Library’ to the Botany School at Cambridge University under the care and control of the Professor of Botany, A. C. Seward.1 As Francis put it, ‘The library of Charles Darwin has now found a permanent home in his University…’ Of course the library of Charles Darwin is more than the collection of the works he owned at his death. As Francis already appreciated in 1908, ‘The chief interest of the Darwin books lies in the pencil notes scribbled on their pages, or written on scraps of paper and pinned to the last page.’2 Darwin did read both systematically and with great intensity. He read to gather evidence, to explore and define the research possibilities of his evolutionary ideas, and to gauge reactions to his own publications. In fact, reading was a major tool in Darwin’s scientific practice. Thus what our digital reconstruction of the Darwin Library delivers is the ability to retrace and reduplicate Darwin’s reading of a wealth of materials.

The portion of the Darwin Library now published at the Biodiversity Heritage Library constitutes Phase 1 of a collaborative project to digitise the Darwin Library works and to provide transcriptions of Darwin’s marginalia side by side with the pages he marked. Phase 1 presents images and marginalia for 330 books, represents 22% of the total 1480 Darwin Library book titles. But, more significantly, these 330 titles represent 44% of the 743 Darwin books that bear his annotations or marks. The latter comprise 28951 annotated and marked book pages and 1624 attached note slips. Plans for further phases to complete digital publication of the remainder of the Darwin Library are now under consideration.

The project breaks new ground in several ways. When our intended Phase 2 is completed, the transcriptions will represent a new and significantly augmented edition of Di Gregorio and Gill’s Charles Darwin’s Marginalia, vol. 1 (1990). In Phase 1, Cambridge University Library has contributed entire-work, high-resolution scans for 120 original Darwin Library books, all bearing his marginalia. The online publication of books that Darwin himself owned and annotated is itself an internet first, and this first phase includes many works that Darwin marked most extensively. The Natural History Museum has scanned surrogate imprints from its collections and coordinated the search for surrogates at other BHL member libraries and from contributors to the Internet Archive. Surrogates, as we use the term, are copies of works not owned and not annotated by Darwin that, nevertheless, are bibliographically identical to those Darwin owned. The use of surrogates together with originals is itself an innovative model that has greatly extended the reach of the project. As a result of the Natural History Museum’s contribution, users will have access to 313 Darwin books with page-by-page transcriptions that otherwise would have been beyond our reach. Darwin’s Library also has the distinction of being the first ever Biodiversity Heritage Library Collection. Books in the collection can be searched as part of an independent unit or as a part of BHL as a whole. The marginalia are searchable independently and in conjunction with the books in this special collection. Finally, the Darwin Manuscripts Project at AMNH, which initiated the Darwin’s Library project, conceived its basic architecture, and brought its international partners together will integrate the Darwin Library transcriptions on its own site, where they will be searchable in the context of the database records for some 30,000 individual Darwin manuscript folios.

Darwin’s Library versus Darwin’s Reading

By the title Darwin Library, Francis unambiguously meant Charles Darwin’s personal collection of books, periodicals, and pamphlets as it stood in his home, Down House, at the time of his father’s death in 1882.3,4,5 Francis did not, however, transfer the whole of the Darwin Library to the Botany School, rather he retained Darwin’s personal copies of the books his father wrote and ‘some few others’. Over the subsequent years, the Darwin Library has been moved, broken up, partially sold, and partially reunited. Notwithstanding, the integrity of the Darwin Library has not been lost. That is so because the materials have, very largely, always remained in the hands of dedicated curators and members of the Darwin family. Thus, we can speak of the scientific core of Darwin’s books as having a clear definition in 1882. However, it is important to realize that in addition to this core, some books may well have been shared by Darwin with other members of the household, most notably his wife Emma. It makes sense to include all books for which Darwin’s ownership or use can be established, even if that was a co-ownership with Emma. This small measure of indeterminacy hardly negates the legitimacy of the Darwin Library as an entity. The task of the Darwin’s Library project then is to reunite all known elements of the historical Darwin Library as a virtual yet enduring collection.

The Darwin Library is one of the many parts of the Darwin collections in Cambridge. To put the Library in its context, we must understand that this entity is not synonymous with the whole of what can be called Darwin’s Reading. Rather, the Darwin Library’s three parts (books, periodicals, and pamphlets) actually count as but one of four principal components, which together make up the full surviving record of Darwin’s practice as a reader.

Two other components are not books, but sizable collections of manuscripts in the Charles Darwin Papers, namely: Darwin’s Abstracts (DAR 71-75 and including scattered reading notes in numerous volumes of portfolios throughout the archive) and his Reading Notebooks & Reading Lists (DAR 119, DAR 128 and other shorter lists). And a final component is the direct and indirect evidence for Darwin’s reading, such as: references cited in his publications, references in correspondence, borrowing records from Edinburgh University Library and the London Lending Library, sales catalogues of the libraries of his uncle and father-in-law Josiah Wedgwood and of his father, Robert Waring Darwin and much more.6

The Darwin Manuscripts Project under a National Science Foundation grant (NSF award 0646695) is preparing transcriptions of the relevant manuscript material, with the exception of the Reading Notebooks, already published by the Darwin Correspondence Project. As important as the Darwin Library is, in order to truly and fully retrace and reconstruct Darwin’s Reading, these materials will need to all be integrated, as no doubt they eventually will be.

Collection History: Darwin’s Wandering Volumes

If we consider only the Botany School bequest, then the Darwin Library has the stamp of a decidedly scientific collection. Although there are more philosophical titles, such as Abercrombie’s Inquiries concerning the intellectual powers and the investigation of truth, many of these works touch on what might be called humanities topics that Darwin actually attempted to transform into science. Indeed they illustrate the unique way that Darwin’s ambitious evolutionary synthesis of natural history is reflected in the Darwin Library: evolution embraced not only humans but also the quintessentially ‘higher’ aspects of their humanity.

Our impression of the collection’s scientific character is not changed if we consider those ‘few other’ works that Francis retained. These were handed down from his son Bernard to his grandson Robin, and they were bought from Robin Darwin by Cambridge University Library in 1962, thanks to a gift from an anonymous benefactor.7 An unknown number of other books did make their way onto the book market, four of which were collected by Quentin Keynes, and are now part of the Charles Darwin Trust collection. Of these, three are scientific books while the fourth is the German New Testament that Darwin carried with him aboard H.M.S. Beagle. Yet even Das neue Testament served a scientific end for Darwin: learning to read German.

There is one other substantial piece. As mentioned above, in 1899, Darwin’s sons George and Francis, as executors, donated a number of books from the estate of their mother, Emma Darwin to Cambridge University Library. These were given a distinctive bookplate and dispersed into the library’s general collection (see note 4, above). It is most interesting that if we include these books, the Darwin Library takes on a much more humanistic cast. For they include works of literature, such as Goethe’s Tasso TorquatoÜber religion (1831). Yet it is difficult to know whether some of these books belonged more to Emma than to Charles, or were shared by them. Some evidently were inherited by Darwin from his brother Erasmus Alvey Darwin in 1881. (1856) and as serious a theological work as Schleiermacher’s

It is worth noting that the majority of the peripatetic movements that Darwin’s books have endured since his death occurred during periods of heightened public interest in Charles Darwin. Thus the Darwin Library bequest to the Botany School in 1908 was made one year before the centenary of Charles Darwin’s birth, which was marked by major celebrations in Cambridge. That bequest represents the first major transfer of Charles Darwin material from his family to the University. Eventually, a very large set of collections constituting much of Darwin’s working materials (correspondence and scientific manuscripts) came to be concentrated in the Manuscripts Department of Cambridge University Library. Today these collections form the world’s richest repository of documents produced by the hand of this preeminent naturalist. Yet notwithstanding the early date of the Botany School bequest, it was to be one of the last large collections of Darwiniana to actually arrive on the shelves of the University Library—and then it only arrived in part.

In 1935, Professor Seward, responding to another key Darwinian public event—the opening of Down House to the public in 1929—transferred the great bulk of the books in the Darwin Library back to their former home, thereby contributing to the authenticity of the restoration of the house where Darwin had lived and worked.

In 1959 the centenary of the Origin of Species was celebrated. By this time scholars had begun to appreciate the possibility that there were unmined treasures in the Cambridge Darwin collections and that even every scrap of original Darwiniana might shed some revealing light on Darwin’s life and intellectual development. It was during this period that the Manuscripts Reading Room became the international centre for original Darwin research. Yet there was at least one large trove missing. Thus in August 1960, several months before acceding to the Chair of Botany, Sir Harry Godwin wrote to H. R. Creswick, the University Librarian, proposing to withdraw about half of the books from Down House and to transfer them to the University Library.8 Godwin’s plan, formulated in consultation with Creswick, Sir Geoffrey Keynes, Sydney Smith, and J. S. L. Gilmour9 was to bring the heavily annotated Darwin books and ‘rarities’ of ‘high market value’ to Cambridge and to leave works lacking marginalia or lightly annotated at Down House. Thus the shelves of Darwin’s study at Down House would still hold authentic Darwin books, but the needs of scholars would also be met.10

Thus between 1961 and 1963, in the wake of the Origin centenary, the elements of the Darwin Library came to be reassembled as we know them today. The books of the Botany Deposit were split between Down House and the Cambridge Manuscript Department, with annotation as the guiding criterion of the division. But those that did make it back to their ‘permanent home in his University’ were rejoined with both the pamphlets in the Manuscripts Department and the Darwin works and Francis’ ‘some few others’ also in Cambridge, but two floors down in Rare Books. It would seem that the history of this collection is entangled with the history of Darwin’s celebrity.

And here we are just two years after Darwin’s bicentenary in 2009 bringing the library of Charles Darwin together in a new way that dramatically extends its accessibility. From 1963-1989 the only way to consult the Darwin Library was to visit Cambridge. The 1990 edition of the Marginalia changed that. From 1990-2010 with a copy of Di Gregorio and Gill in hand and access to one or, more likely, to several top flight research libraries, a scholar could painstakingly reconstruct Darwin’s annotations on books of interest. However, from April 2011, the doors of Darwin’s Library will for the first time be open to all students, everywhere.

To paraphrase Francis Darwin, ‘The library of Charles Darwin has now found a permanent home in the global university…’

Credits top

Edition of Darwin’s annotations and other marks. Mario Di Gregorio and Nicholas Gill, updated by Gill and produced as part of the Darwin Manuscripts Project of the American Museum of Natural History. Adam Goldstein and Huw Jones served as bibliographers. David Kohn, PIi

Digitisation of original Darwin copies by Cambridge University Library. Grant Young, PIii

Digitisation of surrogate copies by the Library of the Natural History Museum (London). Jane Smith and Judith McGeeiii

Additional surrogates drawn from works digitised by member libraries of the Biodiversity Heritage Library and contributors to the Internet Archive.

Transcription interface developed by the Biodiversity Heritage Library Technical Unit at Missouri Botanical Garden. Chris Freeland and Mike Lichtenberg iv


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