Hebrew U unveils digitized Einstein archives

World expected to pounce over collection, which includes 80,000 documents iconic theoretician bequeathed the university.

Albert Einstein archives at Hebrew University 370 (photo credit: Judy Siegel)
Albert Einstein archives at Hebrew University 370
(photo credit: Judy Siegel)
A free online archive of 80,000 documents chronicling all aspects of Albert Einstein’s life was presented by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Monday for all the world to see – just in time to mark the 133rd anniversary of his birth.
Although a relatively bareboned archive was set up in Jerusalem some years ago, the new one is much more comprehensive, containing (at www.alberteinstein.info) thousands of facsimile pages in the form of PDF files, images and translations that will continue to grow as more is digitized, processed and translated. Diagrams and photographs can already be accessed, and pages turned.
The university’s Einstein Archives, located adjacent to the Jewish National University Library in the Givat Ram quarter, is expected to be accessed electronically by countless people.
For its first day, HU staffers prepared for days and nights to ensure that its servers could handle millions of “hits” – just as the Sir Isaac Newton Library digitized by HU benefactor Dr. Leonard Polonsky at the University of Cambridge had 29 million “hits during its first 24 hours of existence. Polonsky gave $500,000 over three years to turn the printed words of and about Einstein into electronic text over the next three years.
The online Jerusalem archives, the only academic website of its kind, lists more than 40,000 of Einstein’s personal papers and over 30,000 additional documents related to his life and work. The HUled team includes the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and New Jersey’s Princeton University Press.
HU president Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson noted that the project relates to different academic disciplines, including: physics, basic science, the history of science, Zionism and the university itself. “We have invested considerable effort to advance this project and are happy to make the world of this great scientist and person accessible to the interested general public,” he said.
Former HU president Prof. Hanoch Gutfreund, a renowned theoretical physicist and lifelong Einstein buff, provided details on the online archives to some 50 reporters and photographers – most of them foreign journalists – at a bilingual press conference. He noted that the website presents some 5,000 Einsteinauthored items related to HU – thus showing his deep involvement in its establishment in 1918, and opening in 1925.
“This online archives is a cultural and scientific asset to be shared by everybody,” said Gutfreund. “Academics already had access to material, but it was no easy task. They had to write and apply. They didn’t know what was here.” Now anyone can access the documents, he said, and it will have a great impact on scholars and laymen.
The two foreign academic centers have collaborated with HU in a long-term project to publish the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein – one of the most ambitious publishing ventures ever undertaken in the documentation of the history of science. The enhanced, userfriendly website enables users to view printed and annotated versions as they appear in the Collected Papers, and to its English translation.
About two-thirds of the documents appear in the original German, the Jewish physicist’s mother tongue, which he spoke until his escape from the Nazis to the US. The remaining documents are in English and other languages, according to Dr. Roni Grosz, the curator of the Jerusalem archives.
Einstein bequeathed HU all his personal papers and intellectual property, including the rights to use his image; this had earned the university a good income of many millions of dollars over the years. As if to say “thank you,” the university has devoted itself to locating, borrowing and even purchasing his papers and letters he received and sent. Grosz said that in the 1980s, a single Einstein letter sold for $30, while today, it would cost $3,000 to $5,000.
The expanded site will initially feature a visual display of about 2,000 selected documents amounting to 7,000 pages related to Einstein’s scientific work, public activities and private life, up to the year 1921. These documents are sorted according to five categories: scientific activity; the Jewish people; the Hebrew University; public activities; and private life. Users can use an advanced search engine to see all related documents by subject, and, in the case of letters, by author and recipient.
Glass-topped cases set up at the press conference showed documents that had never before been visually accessible to the public. These included Einstein’s letter to Azmi El-Nashashibi, the editor of Falastin, suggesting an original (but according to Gutfreund “naive”) solution to the Jewish-Arab conflict; a letter to the Jewish community in Berlin giving the distinction between the Jewish religion and Jewish nationalism; a speech to a Zionist meeting with a report on a HU-fundraising campaign in the US; an emotional 1919 postcard to his sickly mother; and a letter from his 24- year-old mistress, Betty Neumann.