A tangled bank heist
November 24, 2020 8:17 AM   Subscribe

Charles Darwin's notebooks reported stolen from Cambridge university (The Guardian). Two of Darwin's notebooks, including the one containing his famous "tree of life" sketch, went missing in 2000. For twenty years, curators believed they had simply been mislaid, but have now determined that theft is more likely. The notebooks were digitized immediately prior to their disappearance.
posted by biogeo (31 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
I studied curation a little bit and this doesn't exactly surprise me, but I'm still a little baffled by the idea that you could just mislay something that famous, and not get to the point where you're pretty sure it's been stolen for two decades.
posted by nushustu at 8:30 AM on November 24, 2020 [5 favorites]


I work for an institution with collections that include many extremely old and/or valuable items and - I'm just saying - it would be trivially easy to steal a lot of the smaller stuff. I'm honestly surprised this sort of thing doesn't happen more often.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:36 AM on November 24, 2020 [1 favorite]


Well, just reverse the digitization process, duh.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:57 AM on November 24, 2020 [24 favorites]


How could you ever sell that? I have heard that there is a black market for stolen art, which ends up on some Bond-villain yacht, but I can't see that kind of buyer going for Darwin's notebooks.
posted by thelonius at 9:04 AM on November 24, 2020


"Computer: Sir Darwin's Notebooks, hot!"
posted by bonehead at 9:09 AM on November 24, 2020 [3 favorites]


Seems like the obvious suspect is whoever did the digitizing 2 months before they went missing.
posted by crazy with stars at 9:21 AM on November 24, 2020 [9 favorites]


Keep an eye out for weirdos with kraken pins and mobile glass jars.
posted by Scattercat at 9:31 AM on November 24, 2020 [8 favorites]


Odds-on they were stolen to order for a Web 1.0 multimillionaire's wunderkammer, then got thrown out in the bankruptcy sale 'cos they were neither an Aeron chair nor an SGI Octane, just some old books with scribbles.
posted by scruss at 9:33 AM on November 24, 2020 [7 favorites]


Probably the unacknowledged child of a Lamarckist who committed the crime for reasons he barely understands.
posted by PlusDistance at 9:45 AM on November 24, 2020 [33 favorites]


Dr Jessica Gardner, university librarian and director of library services since 2017, said: “My predecessors genuinely believed that what had happened was that these had been mis-shelved or misfiled and they took forward extensive searches over the years in that genuine belief.

“Now we have completely reviewed as a new team what happened and come to a conclusion that that’s not a sufficient position or set of actions to take.”


Their theory of the whereabouts of the books has evolved over time, you could say.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:18 AM on November 24, 2020 [7 favorites]


This is like the reverse of Hanlon's razor, maybe?

The story of how the old guard kept pushing "mis-shelved or misfiled" is, in itself, something worth considering. The way Dr. Gardner explains it - "Now we have completely reviewed as a new team" - a phrase with a backstory that needs telling over a pint.
posted by Caxton1476 at 10:26 AM on November 24, 2020 [11 favorites]


Probably the unacknowledged child of a Lamarckist who committed the crime for reasons he barely understands.

They have been trying to undo Darwin's work for generations, and by their striving, have gotten much better at it.
posted by agentofselection at 10:32 AM on November 24, 2020 [10 favorites]


The story of how the old guard kept pushing "mis-shelved or misfiled" is, in itself, something worth considering.

Ie, “everyone who had access was beloved and nice and didn’t show unexplained wealth.”
posted by corb at 11:23 AM on November 24, 2020 [2 favorites]


my favorite eponysterical so far!
posted by ChuraChura at 11:24 AM on November 24, 2020 [2 favorites]


It's possible that the "old guard" were covering up out of embarrassment for having them stolen rather than stealing them themselves, but someone had chain of custody and knew who had supposedly "filed" them after the studio, so yeah, the whole we thought they were just misplaced story does not stand up at all, given the theft was discovered only two months after they were checked out to the studio.

It would have been an easy investigation. Where did they vanish in the chain of take the photos, put them in the box and put the box somewhere, check them back in to the library, put them back in storage -- it's likely the person in the chain before or after the disappearance is the thief.
posted by tavella at 11:26 AM on November 24, 2020 [2 favorites]


obviously the notebooks were stolen after someone discovered the secret occult appendix detailing Darwin's investigation of certain chthonic tentacley specimens dredged up out of the Pacific
posted by BungaDunga at 11:52 AM on November 24, 2020 [1 favorite]


If I weren't under the weather today, I would be pointing out that this could be the start of a Doctor Who episode--it starts with the missing notebooks and ends with the thief, Lord Twiddlesthumb, pulling off his human mask to reveal [spoiler].
posted by betweenthebars at 11:54 AM on November 24, 2020 [1 favorite]


Additionally, why no Arts & Antiquities quirky detective show? It seems like the most obvious premise.
posted by betweenthebars at 11:58 AM on November 24, 2020 [3 favorites]


I'd watch several seasons of "Oxbridge Book Detectives" who exclusively tackle book-related crimes in and around ancient university archives
posted by BungaDunga at 12:06 PM on November 24, 2020 [8 favorites]


I'd watch several seasons of "Oxbridge Book Detectives" who exclusively tackle book-related crimes in and around ancient university archives

"Incunabula Investigators!"

One of the things I learned putting together this post on stolen rare books is that a lot of the thefts happen over a long span of time, like the Girolamini Library thefts, and they're usually inside jobs.

This was an interesting detail about some of the ways things can go awry for the thief:

The second step is a careful scrubbing of the catalogue record. This is important for two reasons. First, by getting rid of an item’s catalogue entry, it is more difficult to detect that it has been stolen. Not only will patrons be unable to request an item for which no record exists — thereby postponing discovery — but even if the item is known to be affiliated with the institution, it is difficult to prove in a court of law without an actual record. Unfortunately for would-be thieves, whose track-covering often ends with destroying a catalogue entry, item records sometimes show up in the darndest places.

Skeet Willingham, head of Special Collections at the University of Georgia, did a fairly comprehensive job of destroying evidence of his serial thefts. This included, he thought, any indication at all that UGA owned an eight-volume set of floral prints by 19th century artist Pierre-Joseph Redoute. Unbeknownst to him, a photocopy of the library’s catalog card had been made for, and stored at, the university’s science library as a cross-reference. Lester Weber, Director of Archives at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, did a similar job of destroying the records of the items he stole. That is, he missed some. In one case, a collection he pilfered had been, before he arrived at the museum, on loan. That meant a separate set of records he neither knew about nor had access to.

posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:16 PM on November 24, 2020 [10 favorites]


even if the item is known to be affiliated with the institution, it is difficult to prove in a court of law without an actual record. Unfortunately for would-be thieves, whose track-covering often ends with destroying a catalogue entry, item records sometimes show up in the darndest places.

Some rare book libraries will also, if possible, stamp items with ink - which feels really strange, since they are otherwise very careful to try not to put permanent marks on them, like only using a very soft, easily erased pencil to add call numbers. But even as they protect the item, they will also deface it with a permanent mark.
posted by jb at 12:24 PM on November 24, 2020 [2 favorites]


fascinating.
I also want that show, and the Oxbridge Book Detectives crossover episode with Midsomer Murders, wherein a string of murders is solved by the discovery that the catalog entry for the missing book was a mistake, and that the new MLIS intern was murdering to protect her great-great-grandfather's reputation.
posted by th3ph17 at 1:26 PM on November 24, 2020 [3 favorites]


In 1998 (the year the notebooks were digitized, and there was this exhibit), then-University Librarian Peter Fox edited the publication Cambridge University Library: The Great Collections, with a chapter on the Darwin papers. (His tenure was 1994-2009; Jan. 2009-Sept. 2016, Anne Jarvis became the first woman to hold the office; from April 2017-present, it's been Dr. Jessica Gardner). Feels like more noise could have been made when the materials synthesizing some key Beagle insights didn't turn up in time for this Darwin-centric presentation: Cambridge University Library held the exhibition A Voyage Round the World at The Exhibition Centre, Cambridge University Library from Monday 6 July to Wednesday 23 December 2009.

"We know they were photographed in November [2000]," says Dr Gardner. "But we do not know what happened between then and the time in January 2001, when it was determined they were not in their proper place on the shelves. And I'm afraid there isn't anything on the remaining record which tells us anything more." [BBC link] Cambridge University Library twitter account: We've launched a public appeal for help in tracking down two missing notebooks belonging to Charles Darwin - one of which includes his iconic Tree of Life sketch. We are heartbroken by the loss. Can you help? Find out more here... #TreeOfLife #DarwinAppeal
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:36 PM on November 24, 2020 [1 favorite]


I wish they hadn't been stolen. That they had been scanned is at least something but I can only hope that wherever they are, they are being cared for. If that is the case, then perhaps one day, after the thief or recipient is dead, a descendant or an employee will mail them back anonymously in a wrapper that says "Been in the Galapagos. The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself. Good to be back."
posted by nfalkner at 2:24 PM on November 24, 2020 [2 favorites]


It's hard to convey how famous that Tree of Life sketch is. It's in every biology book. He says "I think" and then he draws the first ever phylogenetic tree, the way we express speciation hypotheses. I've been a biologist for 20 years, and it still takes my breath away sometimes when I see it.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:37 PM on November 24, 2020 [12 favorites]


My immediate thought was the books ended up in a bonfire out behind the Creation Museum.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:42 PM on November 24, 2020 [2 favorites]


I also hope the notebooks are returned (or 'mysteriously unearthed' from some hitherto unexamined alcove or whatever now that the theft's publicly disclosed).
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:49 PM on November 24, 2020 [2 favorites]


For some years I worked behind the scenes in the manuscripts department of a major research library, larger than Cambridge University Library but very similar in the range and diversity of its holdings. We had something of everything, in every conceivable format. Bundles of notebooks wrapped up in brown paper packages. Thousands of medieval charters in identical white envelopes. Boxes filled to the brim with hundreds of rolled-up brass rubbings. The opportunities for stuff to get accidentally misplaced were endless.

Every January the work of the department came to a halt for an entire week while we performed an ancient ritual known as Verification. Every item was checked against the shelflist to make sure it was in the correct place. This was mind-numbingly boring and consumed hundreds of hours of staff time, but always brought to light dozens of misplaced items. Occasionally a manuscript that had been missing for years would mysteriously reappear. It was like a parable of order versus disorder: constant vigilance was required to keep the gremlins of disorder at bay.

That's why I have no difficulty at all in understanding how the Darwin notebooks could have been missing for twenty years without anyone suspecting foul play. In any large library, the possibility of things being accidentally misplaced is far greater than the possibility of things being deliberately stolen. If the routine checking procedures are good (and in Cambridge I'm sure they are good) it's very easy to say "don't worry, it'll turn up eventually" because sooner or later most things do turn up. In fact I find it quite impressive that the initial disappearance of the notebooks was noticed within two months.
posted by verstegan at 3:48 PM on November 24, 2020 [18 favorites]


"Cambridge University library has more than 130 miles (210km) of shelving and is home to about 10m books, maps, manuscripts and other objects."

Well that explains how they could think it was just lost for so long.
posted by Canageek at 11:36 PM on November 24, 2020


"More than 130 miles" leaves open the possibility that they have yet more dozens of miles hidden somewhere that also got lost
posted by BungaDunga at 7:22 AM on November 25, 2020 [1 favorite]


If they were stolen, the thief chose their time well. The potential confusion around chain of custody related to scanning the manuscripts, as well as the decreased likelihood that anyone would request the originals (most researchers would be pointed to the scanned files) appears to have worked in their favor.
posted by Preserver at 9:33 AM on November 25, 2020 [2 favorites]


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