The entire collection of literary works belonging to Charles Darwin has been reassembled for the first time, and is now available to view online. Researchers spent 18 years tracking down every book, article, pamphlet and journal owned by the legendary naturalist, revealing the staggering extent of his private collection.
Introducing the assemblage, Darwin Online founder Dr John van Wyhe explains that “Charles Darwin's vast personal library, which he used to create his world-changing scientific works, was gradually dispersed after his death in 1882.” As a result, scholars have generally assumed that the collection was limited to the 1,480 books that are known to survive at the University of Cambridge and Darwin’s home, Down House.
However, van Wyhe writes that “we can now reveal that this is only 15 percent of the printed items Darwin owned in his lifetime,” which in fact included 7,350 titles across 13,000 volumes and items. After painstakingly identifying each of these entries, the Darwin Online team has now released a 300-page catalog listing the entire collection, with around 9,300 links to digitized copies of the works.
Among the many sources used to fill in the enormous gaps in Darwin’s library were his original handwritten catalogs, which filled 56 paper boxes and contained frustratingly abbreviated references that researchers then had to make sense of to identify the works being cited. “Each one of these obscure records required its own detective story to discover the publication Darwin had noted as being in his library,” writes van Wyhe.
A further 426 missing titles were then identified from a 426-page handwritten catalog of Darwin’s library that was prepared for him in 1875.
The resultant collection of publications is extraordinary in both its sheer size and the breadth of topics covered. According to van Wyhe, “most of the works in the Darwin Library are, unsurprisingly, on scientific subjects, especially biological and geological.”
However, he goes on to state that “many others are works on farming, animal breeding and behavior, geographical distribution, philosophy, psychology, religion, and other topics that interested Darwin such as history, travel and language.” For instance, several works by the philosophers John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte, as well as writings by Charles Babbage - who first came up with the concept of the programmable computer - are now known to have been present in Darwin’s library.
Other surprising entries include an 1832 road atlas of England and Wales and a coffee table book of artworks entitled Sun Pictures. “There are also articles in Darwin's papers with the alarming titles 'The anatomy of a four-legged chicken' and 'Epileptic guinea-pigs',” explains van Wyhe.
“Simply browsing through the list will give a modern reader a sense of just how thorough, erudite and often quirky Darwin's interests and sources were,” he continues.
If that’s piqued your interest, go check out the catalog!