Darwin Library, Now Online, Reveals Mind of 19th-Century Naturalist

Readers can now search through digitized pages of Charles Darwin's scientific library, which includes transcriptions of his handwritten notes.

A portion of Charles Darwin’s vast scientific library—including handwritten notes that the 19-century English naturalist scribbled in the margins of his books—has been digitized and is available online. Readers can now get a firsthand look into the mind of the man behind the theory of evolution.

The project to digitize Darwin’s extensive library, which includes 1,480 scientific books, was a joint effort with the University of Cambridge, the Darwin Manuscripts Project at the American Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum in Britain, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The digital library, which includes 330 of the most heavily annotated books in the collection, is fully indexed—allowing readers to search through transcriptions of the naturalist’s handwritten notes that were compiled by the Darwin scholars Mario A. Di Gregorio and Nick Gill in 1990.

David Kohn, director of the Darwin Manuscripts Project, initiated the partnership last year as a way of providing access to those who are unable to visit Cambridge, where most of the collection is housed.

“We’re really only beginning to scratch the surface of digitizing Darwin,” which took 18 months, said Mr. Kohn, whose focus is now on seeking more financial support to bring the entire collection online. The project was sponsored by a $290,000 grant from the Joint Information Systems Committee and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Mr. Kohn said the digital library will provide readers with insights into Darwin’s intellectual process as a reader who took a systematic approach to cataloging his own thoughts and observations. Darwin often created indexes and abstracts of his own margin notes.

“We now have this incredible database of everything Darwin—you can coordinate material that’s otherwise a sea,” Mr. Kohn said.

One of the annotations in a botany book revealed a detailed written description for a diagram that Darwin eventually turned into his famous drawing of the “tree of life,” in which all species diverge and branch off from a common genetic ancestry.

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