Darwin‘s notebooks

Darwin’s notebooks

Was Charles Darwin a Darwinist? In the terms we presently understand this, as social Darwinism, then perhaps not. Was Darwin a scribbler, as well as a writer who produced finished published work? Certainly. His books are long, few and portentious. His notebooks were many, filled with short entries, many incomplete musings, some of them momentous in terms of how we now think about the world.

Those who follow the international news about such things may have come across an item about two of these notebooks being missing, and known to be missing, for some 20 years. There are over 20 of the notebooks, these two were being digitised and so removed from their Cambridge library home, and then over a holiday period they were somehow forgotten about, and it was concluded when they didn’t turn up that they had been misplaced on the miles of shelving that the archive in question has. Luckily the digitisation had been completed, with the photograph shown here taken from one of the missing notebooks, courtesy of the BBC news app. Sporadic searches subsequently turned up nothing. An energetic new director led a new search and the conclusion was reached that they were not misfiled but probably stolen. They are worth millions of pounds, such is the light they shine on the thought processes that Darwin engaged in. A hunt is ensuing.

This blog is not about the likely theft or the possible mis-shelving of Darwin‘s two notebooks, but about scribbling and its importance to those who do it. Scribbling is where some people work out their ideas, it is like a filing system into which goes random and not so random thoughts and information and musings. It would seem from this photograph that this was so for Darwin. As close scrutiny of it will show, the first working out, under the heading of ‘I think‘, of evolution and the paths it takes can be seen in the scrawled diagram and hastily written comments. This changed minds, this still impacts on how we think.

For those of us who work in archives and puzzle over collections of different kinds, this should act as a wake-up call. We neglect the detritus of notes, notebooks, scribbled bits of information and thoughts, at our peril! Previous blogs have made the same point, that the so-called miscellaneous parts of collections are not only deeply fascinating, because they are not fully explained and in that sense documented, but because they may also be of incredible importance in interpreting and understanding the central topics we are working on.

Last updated: 27 November 2020