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Darwin’s Manuscripts, Now Online

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A page from Darwin’s manuscript On the Origin of Species, show here as handwritten notes in small handwriting on plain white paper.
A page from Darwin’s manuscript On the Origin of Species, the foundation text of evolutionary biology. (Cambridge University Library, DAR 185.109.f6r)

What better way to celebrate Charles Darwin’s 203rd birthday than by reading the famed naturalist’s scientific works in his own handwriting? You can do just that on Sunday, February, 12—also known as “Darwin Day”—and every day after on the Darwin Manuscripts Project website.

Free and available to all online, the Darwin Manuscripts Project is the most comprehensive catalogue of Darwin’s scientific manuscripts ever compiled. The project is based at the American Museum of Natural History and developed in close collaboration with Cambridge University Library, whose physical collection is the foundation of the new database, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library—represented by the Natural History Museum in London. This new tool will also include holdings from all other library—based Darwin collections globally.

The database at the project’s core—DARBASE (Darwin Union Manuscripts Catalogue)—includes some 45,000 Darwin documents, including writing from Darwin’s time aboard the HMS Beagle, early drafts of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and the Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, as well as his notebooks and botanical books.

Already, the database includes 15,125 high-resolution digital images of the original manuscript pages with annotated transcriptions. In addition, more than 7,400 manuscript pages have been transcribed and are presented in an accessible format.

Particularly innovative are the notes featured on many of the manuscript pages, which make Darwin’s writing accessible to casual readers and scholars alike. For example, scholars can see a transcription of Darwin’s famous first attempt, in 1842, to sketch out an essay about evolution that eventually became On The Origin of Species. It is possible to follow every crossed-out line, every edited sentence, and every transposed block of text, in essence looking over Darwin’s shoulder as he composed his revolutionary first draft of evolutionary history. Alternatively, the site allows more casual readers to view the complete transcription without edits or annotations. This functionality offers clear, highly readable manuscripts without sacrificing drafts that represent important stages in the preparation of published texts.

For more information, see the Museum press release.