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?