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How Charles Darwin is inspiring a new generation of conservationists
03:49 - Source: CNN

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CNN  — 

For the first time since his death in 1882, Charles Darwin’s impressive library has been virtually reassembled to reveal the multitude of books, pamphlets and journals cited and read by the influential naturalist.

The author of numerous works, Darwin is perhaps best known for his 1859 book, “On the Origin of Species,” which introduced the fundamental scientific concept of evolution to the world.

In honor of the 215th anniversary of Darwin’s birthday on February 12, the research team behind the Darwin Online project has released a 300-page catalog that compiles the original 7,400 titles and 13,000 volumes originally owned by Darwin. The catalog includes 9,300 links to copies of the library contents that are available for free online, inviting the public to peruse what Darwin read.

“This unprecedentedly detailed view of Darwin’s complete library allows one to appreciate more than ever that he was not an isolated figure working alone but an expert of his time building on the sophisticated science and studies and other knowledge of thousands of people. Indeed, the size and range of works in the library makes manifest the extraordinary extent of Darwin’s research into the work of others,” said project leader Dr. John van Wyhe, historian of science at the National University of Singapore.

Piecing together a lost library

When Darwin was alive, he kept meticulous records of his library, including a 426-page handwritten “Catalogue of the Library of Charles Darwin” compiled in 1875. Initially after Darwin died, his library was preserved and recorded. But over time, much of its contents were lost or ended up elsewhere.

Two main collections featuring 1,480 books were kept at the University of Cambridge and Down House, Darwin’s family home in Downe, England, that remains open to the public. But the collections only included an estimated 15% of the original library.

After receiving letters from researchers and the public asking about specific titles from Darwin’s library, van Wyhe and his colleagues began their project to recreate it virtually in 2007.

“Scholars have been researching Darwin’s life and works for over a century,” van Wyhe said. “One of the most important elements in understanding Darwin’s theories is his sources — the publications by others that he used in his research.”

Institutions such as the Down House museum, the Cambridge University Library and Christ’s College Cambridge, as well as private collections, were used to track down the materials during the painstaking 18-year process.

Charles Darwin is depicted circa 1880 in a painting by Walter William Ouless.

Despite his disciplined recordkeeping, Darwin used abbreviated or vague ways to refer to journals and pamphlets in his collection, with many entries missing authors, dates or sources.

The project team combed over each piece of paper turned up during its search, sifting through handwritten family documents and letters, Darwin’s reading notebooks, his wife’s diaries and lists from scholars written a century ago. By comparing all the documents, the researchers found thousands of previously unknown titles, including bound books and unbound volumes and pamphlets, and traced the journey of titles sold at auction over the past 100 years.

“It has been like 5,000 little detective stories — trying to find out which author or article Darwin noted having — it is a joy to strike gold and find the exact source he was referring to,” van Wyhe said. “We can now show that originally he had far more in his impressive library.”

A surprising collection

Darwin naturally had a wealth of titles concerned with his main scientific interests, such as biology and geology. He owned a copy of an article authored by the ornitho