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HISTORY

With a “happy easter” note, the lost books of Charles Darwin were returned 20 years later

The notebooks were mysteriously returned to Cambridge University after the librarian realized they had disappeared more than 20 years ago.

EFE - As if coming from a mystery novel, a brief message in a brown envelope which reads “Librarian, Happy Easter X”, an anonymous returned two notebooks of the naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) that disappeared more than twenty years ago. The surprise was handed out last March 9 in the library of the English university of Cambridge.

Jessica Gardner, the librarian who saw the note, said she felt “a deep sense of relief” and “great excitement” to discover these gems of scientific history in good condition, fifteen months after she launched a worldwide appeal to recover them after they were first lost from sight in 2001.

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Police are investigating who is behind the alleged theft and return of the small notebooks - one of which contains a sketch of the famous 1837 Darwinian “tree of life” - which were left in a garish pink bag in a room without security cameras.

The lost notebooks

The notebooks were initially removed from their usual location in the armored facility housing the special collections in September 2000 to be photographed, Cambridge University explained in a statement.

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The photoshoot was completed in November of that year and presumably, the notebooks, which are the size of a paperback book, should have been returned to their place, but a routine check-in in January 2021 detected that they were not there.

Officials assumed they had been stored elsewhere, but numerous searches in subsequent years failed to turn up them.

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In early 2020, Gardner organized the largest search in the library’s history, with specialized personnel assigned to search specific areas of the archives.

Experts took fingerprints and examined the entire Darwin Archive, with 189 boxes of objects and documents. When the notebooks were not found, they concluded that they had probably been stolen.

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In October 2020, the librarian reported the theft to the County Police and in coordination with the County Police and Interpol launched an international appeal for anyone with information to share it.

Gardner believes that this public request, which spread through newspapers and social networks, was key for that unknown hand to return the notebooks, in whose pages Darwin outlines his theory of evolution.

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The best gift

Inside a brown envelope with a pink bag were the notebooks, in their storage box, wrapped in cling film.

According to the University, they show “no obvious signs of significant handling or damage” in the more than 20 years since their disappearance.

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The Cambridge Police has expressed its satisfaction “that these priceless notebooks are where they belong” and notes that it is keeping its investigation open.

Pleased and relieved, Gardner has said that the “sole purpose” of her public appeal was to have “the manuscripts safely returned” to her custody, which has finally been achieved.

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“The notebooks will now regain their rightful place within the Darwin Archive in Cambridge, at the heart of the nation’s cultural and scientific heritage, alongside papers by Isaac Newton or Professor Stephen Hawking,” she said in the statement.

The university’s vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope, also expressed his joy at the unexpected Easter gift and recalled that “objects such as these are crucial to our understanding not only of the history of science, but also of the history of humanity”.

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To celebrate this happy ending, Cambridge University Library will display the notebooks starting July 9 as part of the free exhibition “In Conversation with Darwin.”

“They may be small, the size of postcards, but the impact of these notebooks on the history of science and their importance to our collections cannot be underestimated,” Gardner thinks.

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