Darwin Goes Digital

Much of Charles Darwin’s personal library–both his books and what he wrote within them--is now available online.

Jun 24, 2011
Jessica P. Johnson

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, LIN KRISTENSEN

For the first time in history, Charles Darwin’s scribbled notes contained within the pages of books from his library are available—online and free—to the general public.

At the time of his death in 1882, Darwin’s home held nearly 1,500 books, periodicals, and pamphlets, a collection now known as Darwin’s Library. In half of these, he diligently scribbled notes, crossed out lines, and appended notes on slips of paper. “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,” Darwin’s son Francis said in 1908.

In April, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) digitized and published online 330 of the most heavily annotated resources in Darwin’s library, ScienceNOW reports. Every annotation, including underlines and crossed-out passages, has been painstakingly transcribed and catalogued and are searchable by keyword.

“Reading was a major tool in Darwin’s scientific practice,” the BHL writes on its site. “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.” This marks the first of two releases. The second, which is yet to be scheduled, will include all remaining items in the library, 413 of which also include his annotations.