October 24, 2014

Darwin Online Digitizes the Complete Library of the HMS Beagle

Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle is famous for having led to some of the most groundbreaking work in evolutionary biology. Data gathered during the five-year, globe-spanning expedition was central to the evidence Darwin presented in his 1859 title On the Origin of Species, which introduced the concept of natural selection and the theory of evolution.  This voyage so intrigues people to this day that almost every written work produced by Darwin on the ship has been made public—from his diary to his letters.

Everything, that is, but the largest collection of materials that likely influenced his thinking—the library on board the Beagle. John van Wyhe, a senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore has digitally reconstructed the famous Beagle library and made it accessible to Darwin scholars and others studying that period in history. He said that this library, which has not existed as a collection for almost 180 years, is what he would have liked as a scholar when he was editing Darwin’s Beagle field notebooks in 2006.

“By putting it online this allows anyone to gain, in a very short time, a very different impression of Darwin’s voyage. One can almost instantly appreciate that he was not alone—he had the scientific work of many of his predecessors at his fingertips. He was quite literally standing on the shoulders of giants,” van Wyhe wrote in an email.

The library, now accessible on the Darwin Online website, builds on a list created by the Darwin Correspondence Project, which initially listed 132 books inside the Beagle. Additional research has been used to reconstruct the list so that van Whye’s Beagle library now has 404 searchable volumes of books presumed to have been on the ship with Darwin.

That comes to about over 195,000 pages and more than 5,000 illustrations available online that range from books on geology to literary works. The infographics below offer a detailed breakdown of the different characteristics of the collection.

The Beagle library joins another one of Darwin’s libraries that has been digitized and put online. Darwin’s personal scientific library has been reconstructed, making a number of his 1,480 books available via the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) website.

According to Martin R. Kalfatovic, the Smithsonian’s associate director for digital services and program director, BHL, the online availability of the Beagle library is a boon for Darwin scholars and scientists.

“What a person has read, or even just what was in their library, can tell us much about what they were thinking, what sources their ideas were built on, and much more. In the case of Darwin’s Beagle library this is even more important as knowing what books Darwin had access to during this formative part of his life,” Kalfatovic wrote in an email.

However, not everyone shares in Kalfatovic’s enthusiasm. David Kohn, director and general editor of the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin Manuscripts Project, said that van Wyhe’s Beagle library is redundant since his organization had already created a catalog of books in the ship and placed them online more than a year ago.

In addition, while they have many of the same books in their Beagle libraries, he questions some of what Darwin Online chose to include, especially since the website does not currently offer a direct explanation of the reasons why titles were included in the collection .

“[Darwin Online and the Darwin Manuscript Project] have different foci, different purposes but sometimes they overlap,” Kohn said. “And we have different attitudes toward textual editing. We believe we have a higher standard of textual editing for example. In other words there’s a fair and scientific competition.”

Kohn did note that van Wyhe’s Beagle library has made an important contribution to Darwin scholarship by transcribing some of the books and making them searchable.

In response, van Wyhe said that Darwin Online is the largest and most complete list ever created of the Beagle library, even in comparison to the Darwin Manuscript’s catalog, and does not view criticism of the selection criteria as credible.

“As for any books being ‘questioned’—I have heard nothing about this and seen no evidence. I do not think that unsupported claims by rivals should be given public notice,’ he wrote in an email.

These projects are just two examples of the strong push to digitize many of Darwin’s writings and the works he had access to in his libraries in order to get a clearer understanding of his thinking process and influences.

“There is still a lot of discussion of [Darwin] and his views, and these projects are doing their best to make sure that there is as much solid evidence for such discussion as possible,” Rosemary Clarkson, staff member of the Darwin Correspondence Project, wrote in an email.

The Darwin Correspondence Project has digitized many of Darwin’s letters and made them accessible online. And, the Darwin Manuscript Project is planning to publish all of Darwin’s manuscripts on the subject of evolution around June 2015. And while BHL does not have afirm timeline in place, it still hopes to add more to its online collection of books from Darwin’s personal library. Darwin Online also has more projects on the way, but cannot give details as of yet.

This article was featured in Library Journal's Academic Newswire enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to your inbox for free.

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