London – Twenty years ago, two historical notebooks belonging to the renowned naturalist Charles Darwin were found missing from the archives of the University Library in Cambridge. The small books captured Darwin’s thoughts after returning from England on his famous voyage aboard the HMS Beagle while sticking to ideas that laid the foundation for modern evolutionary biology.
Now the library has said it believes the notebooks may have been stolen and on Tuesday launched a public call for information about their whereabouts. According to local police, Interpol was asked to place the objects in a register of stolen works of art.
The library, which houses the largest collection of Darwin’s writings, rated the missing notebooks as “invaluable,” but nevertheless estimated their value at “pound pounds”.
One page, reproduced around the world by museum exhibits, school posters, and T-shirts, presents the first sketch of the “Tree of Life,” which maps out how related species can differ from a common ancestor, as can a tree detached from a tribe.
Jessica Gardner, director of the University of Cambridge Library and Library Services, said the institution “determined to do its best to discover what had happened and not leave a rock behind” to find the notebooks.
“Someone may have knowledge or insights somewhere that can help put these notebooks in the right place at the heart of the UK’s cultural and scientific heritage,” the library said in a statement.
Notebooks were first listed as missing in January 2001, and library staff have long thought they simply fell ill among the vast collection of about 10 million books and objects. But after an exhaustive search, which the library said was the largest in its history, the curators came to the conclusion that they were probably stolen.
Dr. Gardner said that at the time the books first disappeared, library protocols were very different, and since 2001, new strong rooms, special reading rooms, CCTV surveillance, and enhanced security had been incorporated.
“Today, all such significant missing objects are immediately reported for potential theft, and a widespread search has begun,” he said. “We keep all our valuable collections in the strictest security, in separate, air-conditioned strong rooms that meet national standards.”
Notebooks have long been kept in the Strong Rooms in the library’s special collections, where the most valuable and rarest items in the collection are located, and taken out in September 2000 for photography. A month later, during a routine check, a small box containing the two booklets was missing, the library said.
Years of searching, including a final specialist search organized by Dr. Gardner earlier this year, never found them.
This led the library and national experts in cultural heritage theft to conclude that they were probably stolen. Dr. Gardner encouraged any current or former employees, those working in the book industry, researchers, or anyone with information to contact you.
The appeal is marked by the anniversary of Darwin’s publication, “On the Origin of Species,“ November 24, 1859.
Sgt detective Sharon Burrell, Cambridgeshire police, said the stolen items had been reported to Interpol and hoped to disclose the potential theft, “kneading someone’s memory”, which would result in information available that could ensure their return.
“Because of the time that has elapsed since their disappearance, information from the public will be very important in this investigation,” he said in a statement.