Everyone teaching European history, World history, or biology owes a big thank you to the fine folks at Christ’s College, Cambridge, for aggregating every word Charles Darwin ever wrote into one website. Darwin Online offers visitors an amazing collection of more than 50,000 searchable text pages and 40,000 images. The site’s creators have also put together what they claim is “the most comprehensive Darwin bibliography ever published and the largest manuscript catalogue ever assembled.” And, in what we can only hope is an trend, the site offers free audio mp3 versions of Darwin’s works.
Another excellent feature of the site is the provision of both searchable texts and images of the originals for much of Darwin’s work. So, for instance, page 4a of Darwin’s notebook on March 14, 1835 (during the Beagle voyage) reads:
14th [March 1835] –
Started for St Jago1 in a Birloches or gig.
Hills all soft & worn into that sort of bifurcating ridges which is peculiar to degradation of soft matter; in all the ranges which I saw were composed of very soft gneiss or protogene, which is interlaced by veins of same figure as
The actual page looks like this:
Having access to the original notebooks as well as the searchable text will give students the opportunity to draw their own conclusions about what Darwin wrote (or didn’t write), how his thinking unfolded during his fieldwork, and any number of other insights. One can also find illustrations of insects he collected as a student at Cambridge (which appeared in a book by J. F. Stevens in 1830).
As incredible a resource as this site is, it leaves a lot to be desired as regards its design and usability. The interface is clunky and the search features are very limited. It is to be hoped that future iterations of the site will focus on these design issues to make the content more easily accessible to visitors.
A similarly ambitious effort–the Marx/Engels Internet Archive offers visitors access to almost every word Marx ever wrote [read my review of the site]. Before too many more years pass the volunteers at this site will have completed the work of transcribing all of Marx’s writings–letters, newspaper articles, books, and pamphlets–along with the works of many more politicians on the left. Like the Darwin archive project, Marxists.org suffers from some serious design shortcomings.
These projects are just two of the many efforts under way to make available the entire archive of important figures from world history. Having the complete works of these individuals available will not only give students the opportunity to do research at a level not previously possible, but will also open the door to sophisticated text mining by historians. So, for instance, what insights might be gleaned about Hitler’s deployment of anti-Semitism in his speeches when all those speeches are available in fully searchable text? And then if the text of those speeches could be compared computationally to letters and other work from Hitler’s pen at the same time as well as official Nazi Party propaganda? This sort of analysis has been done manually for years, but with massive databases like the Darwin and Marx/Engels archives, much more sophisticated computational analysis of these texts will be possible.