July 18, 2014

Digitizing Darwin’s library


HMS Beagle

There’s something undeniably satisfying about browsing someone’s personal library. Whether it belongs to a new acquaintance or to a noted figure like J.P. Morgan, a collection of books is a fascinating window into its owner’s intellectual bona fides—or pretensions, perhaps.

One such library long thought lost was that aboard the HMS Beagle during Charles Darwin‘s famed journey around the world. The library, whose books belonged to Captain Robert FitzRoy and other officers on board the ship, was stored in Darwin’s cabin, meaning their amassed knowledge was literally at arm’s reach for most of the five years of the voyage. While their contents were at one point cataloged, that record no longer exists, and the collection was scattered upon the surveyors’ return to England.

Now, according to ArsTechnica, a group of researchers at the National University of Singapore have reassembled the Beagle‘s library into a fully searchable online database as part of the Darwin Online project. Drawing from references in Darwin’s correspondence and work, the researchers identified 404 volumes comprising 181 works and totaling 195,000 pages. There’s also a separate index of the thousands of illustrations found within.

These books played a critical role in Darwin’s research aboard the Beagle, as the scholars note in the introduction to the library:

Before the Beagle reached a new location, Darwin was able to read the reports of earlier visitors. He could thus begin his work well armed with whatever was already known rather than starting from scratch. The scientific questions he found answered and indeed left unanswered in the library coloured the way he thought about what he encountered.

Darwin’s personal favorite book was apparently Paradise Lost, but browse the library for yourself and you’ll wonder how Milton could possibly have competed with titles like Travels through Norway and Lapland during the years 1806, 1807, and 1808; Principles of geology, being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation; or my personal favorite, On Peat.


Christopher King is the Art Director of Melville House.