Missing Charles Darwin notebooks returned to Cambridge University Library in pink gift bag
Two notebooks belonging to Charles Darwin have been safely returned to Cambridge University Library, 22 years after first being reported missing.
Their return comes 15 months after Cambridge University librarian Dr Jessica Gardner launched a worldwide appeal for information in partnership with Cambridgeshire Police and Interpol.
The small leather-bound books, one of which contains his iconic 1837 ‘Tree of Life’ sketch, are worth many millions of pounds and were returned anonymously to the library on March 9, 2022.
They are in good condition, with no obvious signs of significant handling or damage.
Dr Gardner, who became Cambridge University librarian in 2017, said: “My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express.
“Along with so many others, all across the world, I was heartbroken to learn of their loss and my joy at their return is immense.
“The sole aim of our public appeal was to have the manuscripts returned to our safekeeping and I am delighted to have had such a successful outcome in such a relatively short space of time.
The notebooks can now retake their rightful place alongside the rest of the Darwin Archive at Cambridge, at the heart of the nation’s cultural and scientific heritage, alongside the archives of Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Stephen Hawking.
They were returned in a bright pink gift bag containing the notebooks’ archive box and inside a plain brown envelope addressed to the university librarian with the printed message:
The notebooks were wrapped together in cling film and left on the floor in a public area of the library outside the librarian’s office, which is on the fourth floor of the 17-storey tower. The police investigation into the notebooks’ disappearance and subsequent return is ongoing.
The original public appeal was shared around the world, generating thousands of news articles and reaching hundreds of thousands through social media.
Recognising the huge popularity of this material, and as thanks for this global effort to find the missing notebooks, Cambridge University Libraries will be putting the notebooks freely on display this summer, as part of the upcoming exhibition Darwin In Conversation, which opens on July 9.
Dr Gardner continued: “Everyone at the library was incredibly touched by the response to our appeal and to know that so many others felt the same sense of loss we did only reaffirmed our decision to ask the public for their help. We believe that decision has had a direct bearing on the notebooks being returned and we’d like to take this opportunity to give the public our heartfelt thanks.
“That’s why we’re also thrilled to be able to put the notebooks on display this summer, to give everyone the opportunity to see these remarkable notebooks in the flesh. They may be tiny, just the size of postcards, but the notebooks’ impact on the history of science, and their importance to our world-class collections, cannot be overstated.”
The notebooks were originally removed from the Special Collections Strong Rooms – where the rarest and most valuable items are kept – for photography to take place at the Library in September 2000. The photography request was completed in November 2000.
During a subsequent routine check in January 2001, it was found that the small box containing the two notebooks (which is about the size of a paperback book) had not been returned to its proper place.
For many years, previous University Librarians believed that the notebooks had been misplaced in the vast storerooms and collections of the library, which is home to around 10 million books, maps, manuscripts and other objects. Despite a number of searches over the intervening years, they remained undiscovered.
A new search was arranged by Dr Gardner at the start of 2020 involving specialist staff assigned to search specific zones of the library’s storage facilities.
It was led by an expert team, conducting fingertip examinations where necessary, and included a complete check of the entire Darwin Archive, comprising 189 archive boxes. However, this failed to locate the notebooks, leading to the conclusion, with the help of national experts in cultural heritage theft and recovery, that they had likely been stolen.
Dr Gardner added: “The building has transformed significantly since the notebooks were first reported as missing. In the last 20 years this has included completion of new high security strong rooms, new specialist reading rooms and a range of additional security measures such as CCTV, card-and-pin access to secure areas, a dedicated security team onsite and further root-and-branch reviews of all our security protocols to come – to make sure we minimise any future risk as far as humanly possible.”
A Cambridgeshire Police spokesman said: “We share the university’s delight that these priceless notebooks are now back where they belong. Our investigation remains open and we are following up some lines of inquiry. We also renew our appeal for anyone with information about the case to contact us. Anyone with information should call 101 and quote reference 35/71468/20 or contact us online.”
Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said: “Along with so many others around the world, I am incredibly glad to hear of the notebooks’ safe return to their rightful home, alongside the rest of the university library’s remarkable Darwin Archives.
“Objects such as these are crucial for our understanding of not only the history of science but the history of humankind. I’m delighted that the notebooks will be going on public display this summer, giving visitors a once-in-a-lifetime chance to come face-to-face with Darwin’s Tree of Life sketch.”
A spokesperson for Type and Forme, the rare books specialists engaged as part of the process to officially verify the returned notebooks, said: “It is wonderful to see these notebooks, which are so fundamental to the development of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, reunited with Darwin’s other notebooks at Cambridge University Library, the world’s preeminent repository of Darwin’s correspondence and manuscripts.
“This successful conclusion to Cambridge University Library’s appeal for help – undertaken in collaboration with a range of partners in the fields of art security and rare books – will be applauded internationally.”
Angus O'Neill, security chair for the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, said: "The international book trade is thrilled and delighted that these wonderful notebooks are back where they belong, and openly accessible once again as such an important part of the world’s cultural heritage.”
The return of the missing notebooks comes ahead of the launch of a major exhibition of Darwin material at Cambridge University Library this summer.
Darwin in Conversation is the first major exhibition to explore Charles Darwin’s life and work through his vast global network of correspondents from eminent scientists to pigeon fanciers and gardeners. It will open at Cambridge University Library in July, before transferring to New York Public Library in 2023.
The exhibition, which is free and open to all, has been curated using the 15,000 letters Darwin wrote during his lifetime, the majority of which are housed at the University Library in Cambridge in the largest archive of Darwin-related material anywhere in the world.