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Katlin Humrickhouse

Charles Darwin Library

While watching this week’s episode of Cosmos, I stumbled upon the Charles Darwin Library. I thought it only fitting as this week Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson discussed natural selection and evolution. The library, which I would refer to as more of a collection, has some great source material on Darwin. Their purpose is laid out simply on the home page:

Charles Darwin’s Library is a digital edition and virtual reconstruction of the surviving books owned by Charles Darwin. This BHL special collection draws on original copies and surrogates from other libraries. It also provides full transcriptions of his annotations and marks…what our digital reconstruction of the Darwin Library delivers is the ability to retrace and reduplicate Darwin’s reading of a wealth of materials.

In many of the history classes I have taken as well as all of the papers I have written, I have learned that annotations are generally the most important part of a primary source document. It is easy to notice some good and bad things of this project right away. However, some other issues arise once you’ve really dived into the library. First, I will discuss what they did right.

The first thing to notice is the layout of the home page. It’s not necessarily attractive, but not overly busy. It is OK. The books are laid out from A-Z, and you are able to search or sort by author, year, and title. Once you find a book, it becomes interactive. You are able to go to pages where Darwin’s annotations are found or look at the entire book. In addition, you are able to download and print. The page is pretty accessible and easy to navigate. However, it definitely has it flaws.

Firstly, it is kind of confusing. The Charles Darwin Library is within the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and the page is inset into the BHL’s page. Therefore, you may be clicking link and doing searches on the entire BHL collection if not careful. In addition to confusion, there is a “Help Support Us” type button almost always present.

A good comparative project for the Charles Darwin Library is the Newton Project. This provides good comparison because the Newton Project offers Isaac Newton’s drafts, notes, and correspondence much like the annotations provided by the Charles Darwin Library. The Newton Project does a much better job than the Darwin Library in the sense of aesthetics. The page is pretty attractive and easy to navigate. In fact, I have nothing bad to say about the Newton Project. Interestingly enough, as a side note, both of these projects share a sponsor: JISC.