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The Darwin job: the mystery of the vanishing notebooks

The Darwin job: the mystery of the vanishing notebooks

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One sleuth, two notebooks – and a 20-year puzzle

Date commissioned
15 May 2022

Date published
4 July 2022


Why this story?

If Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code, delivered a tale in which two tiny notebooks were left along with an anonymous note in the very library from which they had gone missing 22 years earlier, it might seem a bit far-fetched even for him. That those notebooks should contain the actual handwritten workings of Charles Darwin as he developed his theory of evolution just adds to the intrigue. Who took them? Who returned them? How did they avoid detection? Why did they do it?  How did the notebooks  go missing in the first place? Why did no one notice for 20 years? And what does all this tell us about the way we look after the priceless artefacts in our libraries and museums? Keith Blackmore, editor

Transcript

Ellen Halliday, narrating: It started out as an ordinary morning in March. 

Jessica Gardner, Cambridge’s top librarian, was sitting in her office as usual.

It’s exactly the type of room you’d expect for someone in a job like that. 

It’s got high ceilings, windows that overlook the city’s treetops and spires… and there’s a grandfather clock in the corner that marks the time. 

But on this day – at around twenty past nine – something unusual happened.

Jessica got a message from a colleague. She’d found a package outside her office…

Jessica Gardner: She just thought they were a present. And when she began to open them… she very, very sensibly and quickly, called myself and a couple of other colleagues in. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: The librarians couldn’t believe their eyes.

Jessica Gardner: It was a large pink gift bag. And inside that gift bag was the original archive box, but that was empty… a large brown paper envelope on which the words typed were: Librarian, Happy Easter and an X. And inside was a tightly clingfilmed package containing the two Charles Darwin notebooks.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: They had unwrapped two priceless, handwritten books, each a little larger than a postcard…

These were the books where a young Charles Darwin had begun to sketch out his world-changing ideas. Books that had been missing for almost 22 years… 

Yet here they were, mysteriously returned to the library. And there was no clue who was behind it. 

Jessica Gardner: And it’s hard to convey in such a small little package how much they mean to people, but I think they are sacred texts. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: But Jessica couldn’t get ahead of herself. 

She convened a room of experts to check that the books weren’t fakes, or damaged. 

Slowly… with baited breath… they went through… page by page…

Jessica Gardner: I think I knew then it would have to be an extraordinarily detailed hoax or forgery. And I, I couldn’t, I couldn’t work out why that would happen. Call me naive. But they looked like the two notebooks we’d been searching for for two decades.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: For the library, this was a moment of celebration. 

Jessica Gardner: The notebooks have come home, and that’s what it feels like. I don’t think I’m just speaking for myself. I think it was an absolutely joyous and healing moment. So good things can happen and stories can have good endings. However we got here, this is a good ending. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: But for me… the return of the books wasn’t the end of the mystery. It was only the beginning. 

Behind the good news story of these treasures regained… I was more interested in the questions the library wasn’t answering. And the more I dug into the mystery of the returned Darwin notebooks… the more questions I had. 

Why would someone take the notebooks? Why – after 22 years – would they – or someone else – bring them back? 

Why did it take 20 years for the library to report them as missing? And how many other priceless artefacts are currently missing from library shelves?

This is the Slow Newscast from Tortoise. I’m Ellen Halliday, a reporter here at Tortoise… and in this episode, The Darwin Job, I’m going to investigate how one of the world’s most prestigious libraries lost two of the world’s most valuable books… and whether it could happen again. 

It’s a story that’s taken me from the world of academics to book dealers, and professional book thieves… stretching from Cambridge to Havana. One that began decades ago… and is still unravelling today. 

***

Ellen Halliday, narrating: Cambridge is a city of cloisters, archways and alleys. And many of the people that live there are driven by research – by a quest for knowledge… by the mysteries they each want to solve.

The University Library is the city’s main research library.

It’s an imposing red-brick building, with a 17-storey tower right in the middle… filled with hundreds of thousands of the university’s most important and precious books.

Jessica’s office is at the base of that tower in the heart of the library. 

Jessica Gardner: So I’m very aware that I sit in a very, very long tradition and part of that tradition is collecting and caring for some of the most important heritage materials that have meaning to people right around the world. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: There’s a weight to a job like hers; a pressure that comes with knowing that there are so many years of history behind you.

She became the head librarian in 2017 – only the second woman in more than 400 years – and it’s clear how passionate she is.

Ellen Halliday: Could you take us back to the moment when you first heard that the notebooks were missing, whether that’s before you joined or after you joined the library?

Jessica Gardner: So I first heard about it once I’d been appointed and was in post. So I was here already at the university when I learned that. And it was really devastating and I’ve spoken about it and there’s still a catch in my throat… and I can make no apology for that. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: When Jessica tells me this she genuinely has tears in her eyes.

But you can imagine it, can’t you? Taking on this once-in-a-lifetime job… this huge responsibility… and then the heart-sinking moment you find out that you’ve also inherited a 20-year-old mess. 

These books… they’re really manuscripts. 

Jessica Gardner: … and they’ve got aged leather bindings, which as you can imagine, they are only 200 years old, have got wear and tear. And they’ve got a little, I think it’s brass clasps? So you have to handle that very, very carefully to open that clasp…

Ellen Halliday, narrating: They’re the handwritten notes that a young Charles Darwin stashed in his jacket pocket… where he jotted down his eureka moments, and his “notes to self” in the years after he returned from his voyage to the Galapagos. 

A journey which would, later, shape The Origin of Species.

Jessica Gardner: And then, you know, really every surface on those two little notebooks are covered in Darwin’s writing, you know, from inside the cover all the way through to the back cover. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: Most importantly, the books contain the Tree of Life sketch – a diagram Darwin used to ponder how species are categorised. A pen and ink diagram that is a representation of his radical thought. 

This sketch is the evolutionist’s equivalent to the true cross – it’s a rallying cry for believers that’s been replicated on everything from tattoos to cushion covers. 

There’s tonnes of original Darwin material in Cambridge. The university library alone has over 8,000 items, which take up more than 100 metres of shelving. 

Many of these items are irreplaceable. But nothing, really, is more special than the Darwin notebooks. 

Jessica Gardner: They are small. To be in their presence matters.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: So when Jessica found out they were missing, she faced a choice. Keep hoping, as her predecessors had done, that the two tiny books would reappear – or own up. Go public. Admit they were lost.

Ellen Halliday: So, so what was it that made you decide to go to the police now? What was the catalyst to say now is the time when we put out that appeal? 

Jessica Gardner: You know, if after 20 years of looking, you’ve not found it, then what, what hadn’t you thought about, what have you closed down? Why have we not substantially explored theft or missing in other ways? 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: Jessica went to the police. Interpol were informed. And the university went public with its secret.  

“I am really sad to have to announce a public appeal for help in recovering two missing notebooks one of which contains Charles Darwin’s iconic Tree of Life sketch… I am doing so because we need your help.” Jessica Gardner’s Darwin appeal on behalf of Cambridge University Library

Ellen Halliday, narrating: It was a gamble… but one that, clearly, paid off. Because 16 months later, that hot pink gift bag arrived out of nowhere. 

Someone returned them. 

But who? And why? And why now

While everyone was busy celebrating the book’s return, nobody was talking about how they were taken in the first place – or why the library took so long to report them as missing.

It’s something my producer Claudia and I tried to understand when we spoke to Jessica. 

She told us that in September 2000, the notebooks were removed from their shelves to be photographed. They were last handled in November 2000 when that photography request was completed.

Jessica Gardner: Then we know that a routine check in January 2001 found that the box containing the notebooks had not been returned to its proper place. These are the facts that we know, we know very little else. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: At some point in January 2001, the library realised the notebooks were missing. 

But that’s all we know about what happened to them. 

So I started digging through annual reports from the time looking for clues.

They revealed a library in chaos because of renovations… people working in the corridors…rare books photographed in a portacabin outside the main building… and extra staff members roped in to help move them.

Jessica Gardner: I wasn’t here at the time, but my understanding is the photography unit was in a portacabin in the grounds of the library. And that clearly represents a different situation from what is standardised.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: When I heard Jessica say this I thought – well, that’s one way of putting it. 

Jessica Gardner: And that photography unit is inside the building now and it has been for many years, they’re an incredibly professional and skilled setup… but at the time, yes, that was in a portacabin in the grounds. And I don’t know what happened, but that’s not a normal setup. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: It all feels very polite. 

So I wanted to clarify if this was just “how things were” back then… or whether something had gone wrong.   

Jessica Gardner: This was not standardised at the time. The photography unit must have been moved out of the building while the renovations took place. Would we approach it that way now? No. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: Jessica is in a tricky position. She wasn’t working for the library at the time, so she wasn’t responsible for the decisions made then, and it’s clear she doesn’t want to outwardly criticise her predecessors. 

But it is frustrating that, in our conversation at least, she doesn’t seem hugely interested in engaging with us about what went wrong. 

I found myself asking, don’t you want to find out who signed out the books, who might have put them back, who would have had an interest in taking them or restoring them?

The person who might be able to answer our questions – one of Jessica’s predecessors, Peter Fox – won’t speak to me. He tells us he has nothing to add that isn’t already in the public domain.

Cambridge University Library is seemingly unable to tell us more. Cambridgeshire police are similarly tight-lipped.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about these mysterious books. 

And I started to develop a hunch.

Ellen Halliday, voice note: So I’m just on my way home from the office and I’ve thought of something else that strikes me as strange. The bag that the notebooks were left in – it said on the front – “Librarian. Happy Easter.” But it was left outside her office on the 9 March. Which is a solid six weeks before Easter. But only eight days before the end of Lent term, which suggests to me that whoever left the bag there is operating on Cambridge term times. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: Lent term is what Cambridge calls the term that runs from January to March. So when the books were returned, it was just before classes ended for the Easter break… but weeks before Easter itself.

So I started asking around. 

Most academics I speak to also assume the notebooks were taken and returned by one of their own: a professor, perhaps, who wanted to study the pages in the peace and quiet of their own home – and then lost them, in a towering stack of untidy papers. 

In this version, the person who took them is eccentric, and unintentional. 

But the books were returned in mint condition, wrapped in clingfilm. They hadn’t been knocked around. They had been stored with care. Returned in that hot pink gift bag… with a certain… panache.

So maybe, the person who took the books wasn’t interested in science. Maybe they were interested in money. But then, why return them after so long? Why take that risk?

Jolyon Hudson: My name is Jolyon Hudson and I worked for a company. Pickering and Chatto and we sell rare books and have been selling them since 1820. Although, luckily, I have not been there that long. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: I first visit Jolyon in his office, in the backroom of a church down a narrow lane in the heart of the City of London. 

In fact, it’s apparently the church that inspired the nursery rhyme oranges and Lemons, say the bells of St Clements

To get there, you have to pass through a wrought iron gate and a heavy wooden door. 

In an email, Jolyon warns me it’s “Dickensian”… and he’s right. Once I’m inside, the musty smell of old books hits me. Every surface is piled high.

Ellen Halliday: And how, how did you first join that trade and get involved in selling rare books?  

Jolyon Hudson: It was by accident. I left school with no qualifications whatsoever. I took a temporary job as a Porter at the small auction room, which somehow got taken over by Christie’s… after that I left and started managing Pickering and Chatto, which I’ve done since 1992. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: Jolyon specialises in rare and antiquarian books. 

Jolyon Hudson: I try to deal in books which don’t exist. And what I mean by that is they tend to not be in public libraries or collections. And there are very few copies. So it’s sort of a business that tries to plug gaps and people’s collections. And I don’t deal in books I’ve very often seen before.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: I wanted to speak to Jolyon to understand whether the person who took the Darwin notebooks might have wanted to sell them. And why – after 22 years – they might have been unable to.

Ellen Halliday: Does, does that kind of thing happen often? 

Jolyon Hudson: It doesn’t happen often. The reason for this is it usually takes one dedicated person to steal items, but if they’re stealing them, they either steal them for themselves, or they steal them to make money from them, and they then have to actually sell them through the book market. And the antiquarian book market is very interconnected and everybody knows everybody’s business. 

And if an unusual book comes up for sale, Everybody knows where it came from. And so it’s very difficult to then resell that item through the book market onto another client.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: It seemed as though the person who took them would never have had a chance to sell the notebooks. They were just too well known.

But I still didn’t think they could have been taken by an opportunist: a researcher, a student, or a library staff member…someone who saw the books lying around and, in a moment of Gollum-like impulse, spirited them away.

Jolyon had told me that stealing things usually takes dedication. And nobody – at the library, or in the world of Darwin scholars – could tell me about anyone who fitted the bill.

I needed some cold, hard facts. So I go back to those annual reports for more clues.

And that’s when I saw it, in black and white.

Claudia Williams: Okay, so I got texts from you that arrived just out of nowhere in the afternoon. So what have you found and what do I need to know? 

Ellen Halliday: I am obsessed. I am completely obsessed. I have gone down a rabbit hole of annual reports and documents, and it’s brought me out in a place that I really did not expect… 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: Twenty years is just a moment in the 600-year history of the university – but the annual reports from the late 90s and early 00s really do take you back to another time. 

The big news is that something called the “web” is really taking off. Visitors are invited to attend a lunchtime talk on “The Internet: where it came from, how it works, what it means for society”. 

Ellen Halliday: And at the bottom of the page, and I was not expecting this at all, it just says: “on a less happy note, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the library along with the London library suffered some serious thefts of rare books. The thief, a member of the university, was caught after an extensive police investigation. And during the year was sentenced to four years in prison.” And this blew my mind. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: Let me tell you about William Simon Jacques: a man the newspapers dubbed The Tome Raider. 

Jacques is a former Cambridge student and a book thief. He was first convicted of stealing rare books in 2001, and then again, on similar charges, in 2010. 

And these were high value, scientific books. Texts by Newton, Galileo, and the economist Thomas Malthus, who was a major influence on… Charles Darwin. 

The books were taken from some of the country’s top libraries, including the University Library in Cambridge.

Jacques used disguises, and at least two fake names. At one point, he even fled to Cuba to escape the law. 

And when I first read about Jacques in the annual records… I couldn’t believe it. 

By this point I’d been talking to the library for a while, and they had never mentioned this person, or any thieves at all. 

In fact… I was being repeatedly told how rare this type of thing is.

But William Simon Jacques showed me that it does happen. Sometimes on a huge scale.

So I really wanted to find this guy.

Of course I’m not saying he took the notebooks. I can’t possibly know that. But I wanted to ask him: why do people steal books? And how do they do it? 

Claudia Williams: So what do you know about him now? What have you worked out? 

Ellen Halliday: So there’s not much about him online, but I have found a company that seems to be in his name. And this is super exciting because there’s an address linked to this company…

Ellen Halliday, narrating: So I sent a letter to that address…

[Sound of roads and footsteps]

Claudia Williams: How are you feeling? 

Ellen Halliday: Had a little moment when I sealed it up, some nerves, but we’re on our way. Let’s go this way. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: I do have some information to go on while we wait. 

We know that William Jacques grew up in North Yorkshire, and that he was a student at Cambridge… 

[Sound of footsteps on pebbles]

Ellen Halliday: We’re at Jesus College, Cambridge, which is one of the bigger colleges in Cambridge. And it’s where William Jacques came to university in autumn of 1987 to study economics…

Ellen Halliday, narrating: I’ve been speaking to some of his year group I found from an old photo… 

Ellen Halliday: You know, the classmates of his I’ve reached out to, none of them were aware of anything that he’d done. They had not heard anything about him since university. So this news that actually he’d become this notorious Tome Raider was news to them. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: They remember a quiet, polite, and somewhat distant man who dressed much older than his years, often in corduroy. Although people I’ve spoken to who know him from his later years remark upon his arrogance.  

One fellow student remembers, very specifically… that he had the famous “tennis girl” poster on his bedroom wall. 

And while most students remember him as William, at least one recalls he was known as Simon, and that another student – a mathematician – used to mimic his Yorkshire accent.

We even manage to track down his parents. But when I finally speak to his mother she tells me she’s no longer in touch with him. 

So eventually we visited the address linked to that company we found… 

Ellen Halliday: All right. I’ve got the letter…

Ellen Halliday, narrating: It feels like a last resort.

Ellen Halliday: … I’ve got the company reports. I’ve got my phone to show him a picture. Yeah, that’s all we need.  All right, let’s go. 

[Sound of car door shutting and footsteps]

Ellen Halliday: Ring the doorbell, not sure that worked.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: And despite the fact that their home is listed as the correspondence address for William Jacques’ mysterious company…  the woman living at the address tells us she has no idea of what we’re talking about. 

Ellen Halliday: It’s just a mystery… It’s so frustrating, but like, this man, the man who lives in this house, whose wife tells us that they’ve never heard of the name William Jacques… who showed no sign of recognition about these corporate documents. He is the sole shareholder in a company, but the director is William Jacques. Like what?

Ellen Halliday, narrating: The lawyer whose signature is on the corporate documents can’t help us trace him either.

William Simon Jacques – the Tome Raider – is an enigma. 

But then…we have some luck. 

Claudia Williams: As that whirring sound might tell you, we have liftoff. 

Karim Khalil: Okay. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: Someone who has seen inside his head… and his bank accounts.

Karim Khalil: Ah, you little beauty. Gotcha.

Ellen Halliday: Is he there? 

Karim Khalil: He is in all his glory.

***

Karim Khalil: My name’s Karim Khalil. I’m Queens council, and I specialise in criminal law, prosecuting and defending.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: Karim comes to our interview armed with a back-up disc full of old notes from the early 00s… which takes us a while to crack into. 

He was the barrister who prosecuted William Jacques when he was first convicted of charges related to rare books, in 2001 and 2002.

Ellen Halliday: What was your, what was your reaction when you saw the detail? 

Karim Khalil: My first reaction was astonishment that he had successfully managed to pass so many antique documents through some of the principal auction houses in the UK, with names known in every household, and that none of them seemed to have picked up the fact that these items had been stolen.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: In fact, the first person to realise that something Jacques was selling was stolen was Jolyon Hudson, who you heard from earlier.  

Jolyon Hudson: And I rang up the London library. They checked and indeed it had been stolen. And then that set in motion a chain of events because there were other books in the same sale that had also transpired come from the London library and had been disfigured in such a way as to assure no evidence that they had actually been stolen. And. And there was just an enormous chain of events. More and more books came out from this. It wasn’t just the London library. It was Cambridge and various other major libraries that found that their books are being stolen. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: At this point, things escalate. The police quickly get on Jacques’ trail. 

They alert auction houses across Europe to look out for Jacques’ lots. They interview him twice. And then he urgently transfers more than £307,000 from a bank account in Gibraltar to one in Cuba, and flees to Havana. 

Ellen Halliday: Cuba is a bit of a mystery, really. 

Karim Khalil: It is, I mean, his return from Cuba is more of a mystery to me. I dunno why he came back. Um, if he thought he had enough money to live off and he knew he was somewhere, he couldn’t be extraditioned from….it’s a curiosity that he returned. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: From Cuba, Jacques tells his solicitor to direct police to deed boxes he has stored in Cambridge, London and York. They crack them open, one by one, and find stolen books and pamphlets hidden inside. 

More than 90 of them – half the total amount – come from Cambridge University Library. 

Jacques is charged with 19 counts of theft, just weeks after the Darwin notebooks must have gone missing. 

His case lasted weeks – and involved Karim and other lawyers rootling through piles of valuable books in front of the jury. 

Karim Khalil: So we had the pleasure of literally being able to handle an original Galileo and so on.

I mean, you, you could literally smell history in the box, so much so that those of us closest to the boxes were rather unwell by the end of the trial were the various antiquarian spores that were still hanging about. There was no thought of protecting us at the time. 

Ellen Halliday: ​​And what was the kind of atmosphere like in the room? 

Karim Khalil: Well, the atmosphere was quite interesting because on the one hand you were dealing with quite a young man only in his early thirties who had admitted selling some antiquarian items through the Bloomsbury book auctions, but was saying he didn’t know there was anything wrong with them.

And yet you were looking at him. He seemed to be icy cool throughout and never rose to any sort of level of irritation that we observed, that is, those of us prosecuting. But he was a devil for the detail. So one knew that behind this sort of air of calm distance from what was happening, he was working furiously behind the scenes to try and distract us or establish his defense and so far as he could.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: William Jacques was sentenced to four years behind bars. His conviction, in May 2002, was the news I read in the library’s annual report – the news its director at the time must have been aware of.

Karim Khalil: But it didn’t stop him returning to similar behaviour later. He seems to be somebody who just has that interest and can’t stay away from it. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: Jacques was soon at it again. He was arrested once more – at his parents’ house – on Christmas Day in 2009…

This time, specifically for stealing 12 volumes of one book, worth a total of £50,000, containing pictures of… camellias

Apparently he signed into the library under the false name of a Mr. Victor Santoro, before hiding them under his jacket. 

(The librarian at the time told me that the discovery of the thefts was, for him, a “traumatic occasion”.)

Then after that second arrest, a second trial, and a second stint in prison… the trail of William Simon Jacques goes cold. 

But Karim Khalil…hasn’t ever forgotten the case of the stolen books. 

Ellen Halliday: Could you talk about the moment that you first heard about the Darwin notebooks? 

Karim Khalil: I first heard about the Darwin notebooks on just the news bulletin. Immediately one’s mind goes straight back to 2002, and thinks, oh, gracious, now here we go again. 

Ellen Halliday: Why do you think that? Do you have an idea about why somebody might have returned these books after so many years? 

Karim Khalil: I don’t know why they would. In some instances, people just like to have notoriety, even if they don’t want their name attached to it. So the fact that it’s stirred up this huge amount of interest will give the perpetrator a sense of excitement and achievement, because they know they’ve got away with it for a period of time. 

And they’ve been able to hand it back and have got away with that without being detected. So the excitement of avoiding detection and having had the joy of having this document in their possession, has its own reward.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: If you believe it’s plausible that the notebooks were stolen, then thievery of this kind is complicated; it is high stakes. 

And returning the books, unnoticed, to the University Library? That requires skill. Timing. Planning. 

For William Jacuqes to take the books immediately before his arrest, when he was firmly on the police’s radar? I have to admit… that seems unlikely.

All things considered, I have no evidence that William Jacques – or someone working for him – took the Darwin notebooks. 

Still, I did want to ask Jessica Gardner about him. 

About why the library would go along with the idea that the books could be “misplaced” for twenty years when it had been proved that people could take important documents from their walls without them even noticing. 

Ellen Halliday: Can I ask you whether you. Ever heard of somebody called William Jacques. 

Jessica Gardner: Yeah. Because that’s a matter of public record. And again, I wasn’t here in Cambridge at the time. So I’m aware of that individual not being an investigator. I genuinely can’t say more, but yes, I’m aware of an individual. 

Ellen Halliday: Have you had conversations about him with the police? 

Jessica Gardner: We passed all the names that came forward to the police. 

Ellen Halliday: Were there multiple names?

Jessica Gardner: Because there were a lot of conspiracy theorists out there, yes. But, you know, things that were matters of public record, were matters in the public domain. Then of course we wanted to make sure the police were aware of those too. 

Ellen Halliday: When I started working on the story, I came across a mention of him through one of the university library’s annual reports. I think it was 2002. 

Jessica Gardner: You’ve done your homework more than me in that regard. I did not expect to find any information about the Darwin notebooks in the annual reports. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: So, let’s get things straight. 

By spring 2002, Cambridge University Library knew that they had lost two of their most important books and that a former student had handled more than 90 books stolen from its shelves in the preceding years. 

But they still assumed the books were just… misplaced?

They did look for the books – several times – but it took them a further 18 years, and a librarian like Jessica, to decide that they might actually have been stolen.

Jim Secord: I’m Jim Secord and I’m director of the Darwin correspondence project. And I’m also an Emeritus Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: Jim Secord was at Cambridge in 2002. 

He says that libraries were different back then, and manuscripts were more accessible.

He remembers the upheaval of the portacabin and construction work. And he also remembers that Cambridge University Library was keen to keep the fact of the missing notebooks very quiet. Only an inner circle were trusted with the news.

Ellen Halliday: Can you tell me about the moment when you first heard that they were missing? When was it exactly and kind of, how did you, how did you react to that news? 

Jim Secord: Well, I really learned about it pretty much when I became director of the Darwin Correspondence Project. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: That’s a project that finds and publishes the scientist’s personal letters… to help people understand how his ideas developed. Jim was appointed to lead it in 2006. 

Jim Secord: So it had happened a while back, but it was something that people knew about, but within the library, it was a very small group of people. I think at that point we were just at some level hoping that they would turn up… it’s a very, very big place.

Ellen Halliday: What did the library tell scholars and researchers who came and wanted to, to look at the originals? What. What did they say when people wanted to see them? 

Jim Secord: I think generally they told them they weren’t available for consultation. I think sometimes they may have been told that they were in conservation, which… to be honest, made me feel somewhat uncomfortable, but it was hard to explain if people were pressed about where they actually were. Sometimes I think they kind of figured that something was off.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: When we put this to Cambridge University Library they said it would be unfair for Dr Gardner, or her team, to speculate about decisions made by their predecessors. 

But – if we want to understand what the librarians at the time were thinking –  we have to remember that it happens quite a lot, that libraries lose track of some book, or manuscript, or sheath of paper. 

There are 210 kilometres of shelves in Cambridge University library.

One professor I spoke to for this podcast told me he had only recently found something in another library that had been missing for 20 years. It was simply in the wrong box. The library in question was delighted.

Jim told us a similar story:

Jim Secord: I remember when I went to the British library, and I was looking at some newspaper clippings by a 19th-century geologist, not particularly valuable or anything, but unique. And I turned them in at the British library. And then a week later I wanted to look at them again and I called up for them. And I got this note stamp saying: “destroyed by enemy action”. So it was, I think that was a war time notice, but obviously something had happened during the week with an unhappy employee, I think. 

Ellen Halliday: Yeah, no bombs, no bombs had fallen that week?! 

Jim Secord: No bombs had fallen. No, not, not then. 

Ellen Halliday, narrating: When we asked the British Library about those newspaper clippings they didn’t comment on Jim’s specific experience, but emphasised how seriously they take the safety and security of the collections.

William Brown is a national security advisor for Arts Council England. He helped advise Cambridge when they did their final searches for the Darwin notebooks before the appeal.

He explained that owning up to this type of thing comes with a risk. 

William Brown: It’s not the financial risk. It’s a reputational risk that when you get an institution that borrows and is world class, if the reputation is tarnished in some way, it will stick, and people will be reluctant to lend. They would feel threatened for their own collections if they were to lend and they won’t reassure, and they want reassurance that everything is being done to make sure that the collections and any loans coming in, and any loans going out, will be safeguarded for the future.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: It’s… awkward.

Especially because, when the notebooks went missing, the library had just secured one of the most important collections it had ever acquired – the papers of Sir Isaac Newton.

It was only able to do that with £6 million from the lottery, charitable foundations and private benefactors… who might have been put off, if they thought Cambridge couldn’t ensure the collection’s safety.

And it is especially awkward, if the person who had hold of the Darwin notebooks – the person who returned them in that gift bag, with that note – still has access to the library’s stacks, hallways and reading rooms today.

William Brown is clear that security at the University Library has improved over the years.

William Brown: Certainly I know they have taken professional advice in the last few years to improve the quality of their security, both of the building and of the readers and of the researchers using the facility.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: And it’s true elsewhere. 

The British Library, for example, has gathered up its belongings from buildings scattered across Greater London, into a fortress on Euston Road, with a complicated system of barcodes and restrictions. 

Cambridge’s University Library looks like a fortress, too. The windows at ground level are cross hatched with metal bars and the entrances are fitted with turnstiles – monitored by staff and the eternal eye of CCTV.

But despite all this, precious things are still taken – and not just from smaller libraries, with tiny budgets and few staff.

William Brown insists it’s rare. But it does happen. And there are some really enticing examples.

In 2009, an Iranian academic was jailed for two years after cutting out and stealing pages from rare books in the British Library and Oxford University’s Bodleian library. 

An archivist at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, in the United States, was convicted in January 2020 of stealing books worth $8 million over 25 years.  

Ellen Halliday: Is there a number, do you have any idea, of how many important items are officially missing? 

William Brown: No, I don’t. And until such time, as they are found to be missing and reported, I say reported, or, that information is shared. We have no idea. The number is unknown. It could be large, it could be small.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: Simply put, we have no idea how many national treasures are missing from our shelves. We don’t know about the ones that libraries and museums keep secret. And we don’t know about the ones that they themselves haven’t yet noticed. 

The motivations of book thieves are equally elusive. We can’t know for sure why somebody took the Darwin notebooks – or why they returned with such a flourish. We can’t even know that they were taken by a single person – or even if they were taken on purpose. 

The police are still investigating the case as theft – and they have the CCTV from the library. 

But William Brown isn’t sure that they’ll ever prosecute anyone… he questioned whether it was really in the public interest. 

William Brown: After all, it is a library. Period of 20 years is perhaps a little bit extended, but, it would be possibly quite a difficult case to prove within a court to, to say that the person who took them, had got the intent at the time to permanently deprive the library of them.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: How many of us have a library book at home, on a shelf somewhere, that we’ve forgotten to take back?

But we do know that whoever brought back the notebooks is still at large. We know it’s likely that they have access to the library’s stacks today. And we know they sign their notes with a kiss.

Apart from that, everything is conjecture. Guess work. 

But if I were to make a guess, after everyone I had spoken to, I would say this:

When Jessica went public, she changed the game. Interpol and the police were on high alert. Suddenly, those two notebooks stashed away on someone’s shelf glowed red hot. Bringing them back might be an attempt at self-preservation.

But then why not just destroy them? That run into the open – to the corridor outside Jessica’s office, with a hot pink gift bag – that’s risky. A bin fire in your back garden, less so.

So did Jessica’s plea elicit a pang of Smeagol-like conscience in whoever had seized the precious things for themselves, so long ago?

After everything that I’ve learned, the theory that the books were accidentally taken and returned by an eccentric but well-meaning professor…it seems nothing more than a stereotype. 

But I do think whoever returned the books understood their value. They knew the library was the best place for the books to be. Just like Jessica, they wanted the books to be home. 

I get the feeling that Jessica and Jim… they know there are still questions to answer, and gaps to fill.

Jim Secord: You know, I actually do like collecting things. I always have, but the idea of collecting things that effectively are of national importance, or, I mean, even if, you know, you can buy them, I often feel that these really unique, important things are treasures for everybody. And so the idea that someone would take them from where they belong and have them themselves, to be honest, it’s pretty despicable,

Ellen Halliday, narrating: It puts libraries in a difficult position. 

Research libraries have two tasks: to be the custodians of the most important books – the books which are the foundation of the world as we understand it. And to let people in to see them. 

Jessica Gardner: But I don’t think the solution to cultural theft is to say you never show something. I just don’t think that’s the right thing to do. 

You know, we do our job because these are things which are here for people to enjoy. So I hope lots of people come and enjoy them, and they enjoy them in a way that means that others can… but we cannot simply shut them away in a box as if they don’t exist.

Because things in a box have no meaning, and these have profound meaning to people around the world.

Ellen Halliday, narrating: Knowledge can’t be shared if it is locked away. That balance – between access and conservation – is something librarians like Jessica have to strike…

… knowing that the person who took the Darwin notebooks is still out there, that other books risk being spirited away, and that on any other morning, librarians across the country might arrive at work to find a brightly coloured gift bag waiting for them…

Jessica Gardner: I mean let’s talk about that packaging because it’s so intriguing, isn’t it? I think I’m gonna get gifts in pink gift bags for an awful long time to come.
Ellen Halliday, narrating: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Slow Newscast. It was reported by me, Ellen Halliday, and produced by Claudia Williams. Imy Harper was the assistant producer, and Jasper Corbett and Dave Taylor were the editors. The sound design and original music was by Mau Loseto.

How we got here

More than any story I’ve worked on recently at Tortoise, there’s been a look in my colleague’s eyes when I mention the vanishing Darwin notebooks. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone has a theory. 

The mystery of their return was first noticed by editor Keith Blackmore, who put our reporter Ellen Halliday on the trail. There were so many unanswered questions: who returned them? Why? And why now? It’s an investigation that’s taken us through the backstreets and alleys of London and Cambridge into a world of book dealers, thieves and obsessives – uncovering more questions on our way. Not least: how do libraries keep our treasures safe? And how many others are actually, secretly, missing? Claudia Williams, Producer


Further reading