Cambridge University Library

Darwin’s Library Project

Cambridge University Library holds the most important collection of Charles Darwin’s letters, papers and publications. One of the lesser-known treasures of this collection is his working library. Part of this library is displayed at Down House, Darwin’s home, but the most heavily annotated books are securely stored within the Library’s stacks.

On his return from the Beagle voyage (well illustrated by the Library’s current exhibition), one can think of Darwin embarking on a new voyage – a voyage of the mind and the imagination, which included a deep exploration of the fast-expanding literature of 19th Century natural history.  The books Darwin collected would become a vital resource as he developed his thinking about the problem of ‘transmutation’ and worked towards his theory of natural selection.  Darwin the world traveller became Darwin the close reader and his books bear the marks of this exploration.  Darwin read with pencil in hand – always ready to fill the margins and inside covers of his books with copious annotations and passionate marks.  These marginalia were painstakingly transcribed in the late 1980s and made available in published volumes. However, to make full sense of the annotations, a scholar needs to obtain the corresponding printed texts. A task made very difficult by the rarity of many of the books on Darwin’s shelves.

Thanks to funding from the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Library will be able to make digital copies of Darwin’s books available online alongside transcriptions of his marginalia.  This is an eighteen-month project (September 2009-February 2010) involving an international collaboration between Cambridge University Library; the Natural History Museum (NHM); the Darwin Manuscripts Project at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH); and the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a major initiative to make important works of natural history freely available on the Internet.  We expect Darwin’s Library to be available in early 2011 as a sub-collection of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

23 June 2011: Darwin’s personal library put online

For further information about the project, please contact, Grant Young, the UK Project Director, via