January 20, 2022

Cambridge University Launches a Public Appeal to Help Locate Two of Charles Darwin’s Notebooks That Were Most Likely Stolen From Library

From the Cambridge University:

Charles Darwin’s Iconic 1837 ‘Tree of Life’ Sketch (Source: U. of Cambridge)

Cambridge University Library has announced a public appeal for help in locating two missing notebooks, one of which contains Charles Darwin’s iconic 1837 ‘Tree of Life’ sketch.

Following an exhaustive search, the largest in the library’s history, curators have concluded that the notebooks, first listed as missing in January 2001, have likely been stolen.


Cambridge University Library has taken advice from external experts in security and cultural asset recovery to help in the search, and will work alongside other partners in the book trade, including the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association.

The appeal launch on November 24 coincides with what is commonly known each year as ‘Evolution Day’ – recognising the anniversary of Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species on November 24, 1859, and highlighting the great naturalist’s immense contribution to the history of science.

Dr Jessica Gardner, University Librarian and Director of Library Services since 2017, said: “I am heartbroken that the location of these Darwin notebooks, including Darwin’s iconic ‘Tree of Life’ drawing, is currently unknown, but we’re determined to do everything possible to discover what happened and will leave no stone unturned during this process.

“This public appeal could be critical in seeing the notebooks safely return, for the benefit of all, and I would ask anyone who thinks they may be able to help to get in touch.


At the start of 2020, a new search was arranged by Dr Gardner 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, which contains 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 have likely been stolen.


There may still be hope of the notebooks being found, and the Library will not stop searching. Given the vast size of the building and its collections – the Special Collections Strong Rooms alone contain more than 45km of shelving and millions of documents, many held in boxes – a complete search will take up to an estimated five more years to complete.

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About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.