It sounds like the plot of a crime novel, but it really isn’t fiction. Two notebooks from Charles Darwin that had been reported as stolen from Cambridge University Library were anonymously returned in a pink gift bag, including a typed note on an envelope wishing Happy Easter to the librarian. The items had gone missing back in 2001.
The bag containing the notebooks was left on the floor of a public area of the library right outside the librarian’s office, in an area not covered by CCTV. Who left them and where they had been all this time is still a mystery. Jessica Gardner, the director of library services and the person who reported the books as missing, described her happiness over the news.
“My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express. Along with so many others all across the world, I was heartbroken to learn of their loss and my joy at their return is immense,” Gardner wrote in a statement. “The notebooks can now retake their rightful place in the library.”
A long search
The notebooks contain notes that may represent the first time Darwin came up with the theory of how species could “transmute” or adapt through generations. One of the notebooks includes the famous “tree of life” sketch, which dates back to 1837 when Darwin had returned from his trip on the HMS Beagle – 20 years before the publication of “On the Origin of Species.”
But these were found to be missing in 2001. The library staff did an extensive search, which holds over 10 million books, maps, and manuscripts. This search turned up empty-handed, so the only reasonable explanation is that the invaluable notebooks were stolen. The theft was reported to the police in October 2020, which started an official investigation with Interpol.
The university also made a worldwide appeal for information. Gardner said everyone at the library was “incredibly touched” by the response to the appeal, which she believes had a “direct bearing” on the notebooks being returned. As a way of saying thanks, the notebooks will be on display this summer so everyone can see them.
The manuscripts were found to be in good shape with no obvious signs of significant damage sustained in the years after their disappearance over 20 years ago. They were wrapped together with clingfilm inside their archive box. A plain brown envelope had the printed message “Librarian/ Happy Easter/ X”. A case perhaps for Sherlock Holmes.
Mark Purcell, the library’s deputy director of Research Collections, had previously said he was confident the manuscripts couldn’t be sold on the open market and hoped for a similar outcome to that of Lambeth Palace in London, where a collection of 1,400 rare books was returned in 2013 – almost 40 years after the collection had been stolen.
Despite the lack of CCTV on the area where the manuscripts were returned, entrances and exits to the building and targeted areas such as specialist reading rooms were covered by cameras, the library said in a statement. The footage was given to the police. “It really is a mystery. We don’t know how and we don’t know who,” Gardner added.