What Could Be Lost as Einstein’s Papers Go Online

Even in our digital age, scholars should visit their subjects’ archives—not just surf their sites

When I heard that Albert Einstein’s papers were going to be published free online, I was thrilled—at least initially. Putting scholarly archives online for people around the world to explore will be our era’s most transformative innovation in historical research.

Following in the footsteps of the National Archives’ “Founders Online” (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, etc.) and the digitized archives of Mark Twain, Thomas Edison and many others, the online Einstein papers will be the most extensive such project to date. A consortium of Princeton University Press, Hebrew University and Caltech has been publishing his papers with English translations, and the first 13 volumes went online this week at einsteinpapers.press.princeton.edu. The site will eventually include 30 volumes, with some 14,000 annotated documents.

My initial joy about the project was tempered, however, by a pinch of sadness. I realized that most future Einstein researchers would no longer have to make the journey to the cozy house on the edge of the Caltech campus where the scholars of the Einstein Papers Project were eager to embrace their rare visitors and ply them with guidance, insights and tea. They wouldn’t likely spend delightful days there—as I did for my biography of Einstein—with the science historian Diana Kormos-Buchwald and her colleagues as they debated such issues as how to explain what Einstein meant when he referred to quanta as “spatial” or his fellow Jews as Stammesgenossen (tribal comrades).

The next generation of scholars will also lose the tingling inspiration of seeing original documents. I remember how much closer I felt to Benjamin Franklin —suddenly, he seemed like a real person—when, at his archives in Yale’s Sterling Library, I first touched a letter that he had written, marveling that this piece of paper had actually once been in his hands. I even made a pilgrimage to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which Einstein helped to found and where most of his original documents reside, so that I could draw inspiration.

What sublime experiences will researchers miss if they simply view the documents online? What will be lost if the archives, with their passionate staffs, morph into unvisited repositories?

But my brooding soon gave way to marveling about the benefits that will come when millions of curious people, with new technologies in hand, get to dive into the papers of historical figures. While I was doing research years ago for my biography of Franklin, the Packard Humanities Institute in Los Altos, Calif., was at work on a digital collection of his papers. After a lot of begging, I wheedled a beta version of the CD-ROMs. They let me search all of Franklin’s papers for specific concepts.

I was interested, for example, in his famous statement that “Those who would give up essential Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” I discovered that he had used almost the same phrase in different contexts in 1755 and in 1775, and that he had actually expressed a somewhat contrary view in 1754. In fact, the CD-ROMs let me find easily all 24 cases in which Franklin had used “liberty” and “safety” in the same sentence.

Likewise, with the new digital version of Einstein, I have been looking at the 237 times he talked about Palestine—and imagining what a smart researcher could do by tracing the evolution of the 6,720 times he used the phrase “light quanta.”

With online archives, research can be crowdsourced. Students from Bangalore to Baton Rouge can drill down into Einstein’s papers and ferret out gems and connections that professional researchers may have missed. That will reinforce a basic truth about the digital age: By empowering everyone to get information unfiltered, it diminishes the role of gatekeepers and intermediaries. Scholars and experts will still play an important role in historical analysis, but their interpretations will be challenged and supplemented by the wisdom of crowds.

What future role will there be for archives and their staffs? I hope that, like the selfless folks at the Einstein Papers Project, they will look for more ways to make historical material accessible to everyone. I also hope that they will begin to gather and make retrievable the digital information—emails, tweets, Facebook postings, Instagrams—that we ourselves are now creating each day.

Finally, since I so cherish the experience of visiting the actual collections and meeting their curators, I hope that archives will remain inspiring places to visit and to meet people with like-minded passions. They can blend the virtual world and physical space to become 21st-century museums for the mind.

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