Two notebooks belonging to Charles Darwin that have been missing since 2001 will go on display at Cambridge University Library this summer after being returned in an anonymous drop off last month.
The 1837 manuscripts were discovered wrapped in cling film inside a pink gift bag, which was left on the floor in a public area of the library on March 9. The envelope containing the notebooks said “Librarian – Happy Easter – X”.
The university had launched a global appeal in 2020 to find the papers, which contain a sketch by Darwin of his tree of life hypothesis and early notes on his theories of evolution. The priceless documents were first discovered in January 2001, after being removed from the Special Collections vaults – where the library’s rarest and most valuable items are kept – for photographing in September 2000.
For years the postcard-sized notebooks were thought to have been misplaced, but they were officially reported stolen in 2020 after a fingertip search of the libraries’ vast collections turned up none. no trace.
The manuscripts were returned in good condition, with no obvious signs of manipulation or major damage.
University librarian Jessica Gardner said: “My sense of relief at the safe return of the notebooks is deep and almost impossible to adequately express.
“Along with so many others around the world, I was heartbroken to learn of their loss and my joy at their return is immense.
“The sole purpose of our public appeal was to ensure that the manuscripts were safely returned to our custody and I am delighted to have had such success in a relatively short period of time.
“The notebooks can now take their rightful place alongside the rest of the Darwin Archives in Cambridge, at the heart of the nation’s cultural and scientific heritage, alongside the archives of Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Stephen Hawking.”
Gardner said security at the library is much tighter now than it was in 2001. “The building has changed significantly since notebooks were first reported missing. Over the past 20 years, this has included the completion of new high security vaults, new specialist reading rooms and a range of additional security measures,” she said.
The police investigation into the disappearance of the objects is ongoing.
A Cambridgeshire Police spokesman said: “We share the university’s joy that these invaluable notebooks are now back where they belong. Our investigation remains open and we are following certain lines of inquiry. We also renew our call for anyone with information about the case to contact us. Anyone with information should call 101 and quote reference 35/71468/20 or contact us online.
Visitors can come face to face with the sketch of the Tree of Life in July when the notebooks go on display in the Conversations with Darwin exhibition. The exhibition will explore Darwin’s life and work through his worldwide network of correspondents. It was organized from the 15,000 letters that Darwin wrote during his lifetime.