Reading Over Darwin's Shoulder main content.

Reading Over Darwin's Shoulder

by AMNH on


Access For All: Charles Darwin's Library Is Available Online

More than half of books in the personal scientific library of Charles Darwin, including Darwn's abundant research notes and marginalia, have now been digitized and made available to the public. The digital volumes have just been launched online on the Biodiversity Heritage Library's website as part of a collaborative project by the American Museum of Natural History, Cambridge University Library, the Natural History Museum of London, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The pages of Darwin's books are covered in notes and commentary, offering a direct view of the great intellectual in action. The Darwin Library project enables readers to trace how ideas sparked by the volumes in his library were systematically incorporated into Darwin's scientific theories. Darwin's evolutionary theory, for instance, addressed many aspects of the natural world, and the works of other authors and thinkers provided much of the intellectual momentum for the development of this concept. In fact, Darwin once complained that he had become a "machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts." "Darwin's work, particularly his theory of evolution, is foundational for all of biology including such work underway at the Museum today," said Michael Novacek, senior vice president and provost for science at the American Museum of Natural History. "The digitization of his library will provide invaluable insights into the intellectual process that produced such groundbreaking approaches to the natural world and the order of life on Earth."

"We undertook this digital edition of Darwin's Library as an integral part of our effort to produce an online edition of all the scientific manuscripts that Charles Darwin created. Darwin's marginalia turned these books into manuscripts," says David Kohn, director of the American Museum of Natural History's Darwin Manuscripts Project, which aims to digitize and transcribe all the hand-written documents that capture the evolution of Darwin's scientific theories into published works.

Most of the annotated books in Darwin's personal library are held at Cambridge University Library. The majority of the books are scientific, although several key volumes are humanities texts addressing subjects that Darwin later addressed through his scientific work. The series of transcriptions accompanying each page reveal which passages Darwin found relevant to his work, stimulated his thinking, or vexed him as he read the work of others. In addition to images of the individual pages of each library volume and transcribed marginalia, Darwin's notes are fully indexed so that users can easily search for topics and ideas relevant to their interests or work.

The online transcribed marginalia relies on the work of two scholars, Mario A. Di Gregorio and Nick Gill, published in the 1990s and now greatly enhanced by Gill. This project was jointly sponsored by the JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) and National Endowment for the Humanities through a Transatlantic Digitization Collaboration Grant. 

Media Inquiries: Department of Communications, 212-769-5800