Cambridge University launched an appeal Tuesday to find two valuable notebooks written by Charles Darwin after they were reported as stolen from the university’s library.
The notebooks, estimated to be worth millions of pounds, include the 19th-century scientist’s famous "Tree of Life" sketch. They haven’t been seen since 2000, and for years staff at the library believed that the manuscripts had probably been misplaced in the vast archives.
But after doing a thorough search, library staff now conclude it’s likely that the notebooks were stolen. Police are now investigating and Interpol has also been notified.
"My predecessors genuinely believed that what had happened was that these had been misshelved or misfiled,” said Jessica Gardner, university librarian and director of library services. “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.”
Staff recently searched through 189 boxes making up the Darwin Archive, but failed to locate the notebooks.
Cambridge University Library has more than 210 kms of shelving and has around 10 million books, maps, manuscripts and other objects. The Darwin Archive and much of his personal library occupy more than 100 linear metres of shelving.
"Security policy was different 20 years ago. Today any such significant missing object would be reported as potential theft immediately and a widespread search begun," Dr Garner explained.
"We keep all our precious collections under the tightest security, in dedicated, climate-controlled strong rooms, meeting national standards," she went on.
In the notebooks, known as the Transmutation Notebooks, Darwin laid down his first theories about how species might "transmute" from ancestral to later forms.
He wrote them around 1837, following a trip around the world, and more than two decades before "On the Origin of Species" was published.
The two missing notebooks have been digitised so their content remains available online to the public and scholars.
Angus O'Neill, security chair for the International League of Antiquarian Bookseller said in a statement that "Cambridge University Library is to be commended on coming forward so that the international book trade can help with the notebooks' recovery."
"Items like this could never be sold openly, and we fervently hope that this publicity will lead to them getting back to where they belong," he added.