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The Einstein Papers Project, the decades-long effort to compile and preserve the scientist’s professional work and personal writings, is today opening to the public as a free searchable database containing thousands of documents.

The launch of the Digital Einstein Papers includes more than 5,000 documents that span the first 44 years of Albert Einstein’s life. As the organizations collaborating on the project -- the California Institute of Technology (the project’s home), the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (which houses the Albert Einstein Archives) and Princeton University Press -- work to sort through tens of thousands of articles and letters, the website will grow to one day feature what the publisher said may be the first free digital collection of a prominent scientist’s complete works.

“The best Einstein source is now available to everyone, everywhere through the web,” said John D. Norton, a University of Pittsburgh professor of history and philosophy of science who wrote his dissertation on the history of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. “This is a great moment for Einstein scholarship.”

The collection goes beyond Einstein’s scholarly work. Seminal works such as “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” are obviously included, but so are letters to family members, friends and contemporaries such as Niels Bohr, as well as academic recommendations, grant applications and nominations for prizes.

The quest to collect the documents began shortly after Einstein’s death in 1955, but it took another three decades before Princeton University Press published the first volume of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, in 1987. Thirteen total volumes and 27 years later, the collection has covered Einstein’s writings through March 1923. It is expected to reach at least 25 volumes.

New volumes will be added to the website about 18 months after print publication, the publisher said in Friday’s announcement.

The reason for timing of the launch is simple -- digital publishing has reached a point where it can faithfully recreate the quality of the print version, said Diana L. Kormos-Buchwald, the professor of history at Caltech who serves as director and general editor of the Einstein Papers Project.

“We’ve been working on it for a while, and we’ve been thinking about it for a long time,” Kormos-Buchwald said. “Only now do we have a fantastic colleague like [Princeton University Press’s] Kenneth Reed who could make it so that it could be standardized and authorized and correct.”

The online version of the Collected Papers resembles the print version. Visitors to the website can access all the published volumes and their supplements, and the digital pages are identical to the pages of the print version. That was a conscious decision, said Reed, the publisher’s digital production manager.

“It was actually very important,” Reed said. “When you actually look through the content, there are a lot of equations, a lot of physics, a lot of detailed work that’s gone into the printed page. To duplicate that -- creating XML and HTML -- would be very labor-intensive and costly and take years to develop.”

But the digital version also comes with a handful of features members of the project hope will be beneficial to researchers. The site has been indexed both in English and in German, enabling researchers to look up keywords across all volumes of the collection. The texts are also coded with links that allow readers to quickly navigate from the tables of content to the corresponding chapters, from content to footnotes, and between the English and German versions.

“I think -- from a researcher’s point of view -- it’s extraordinary,” Kormos-Buchwald said. “We wanted to produce a version of the text that would serve these kinds of dedicated searches.”

Kormos-Buchwald said she hoped open access to the collection will attract a variety of researchers from all over the world, from digital humanities scholars performing textual analyses to engineers interested in Einstein’s work with gyroscopes and optical devices.

“I very much hope that historians will access the papers, because Einstein is a major figure in German academic life, intellectual life and eventually political life,” Kosmos-Buchwald said. “He’s become a public persona.”

Reed described Friday’s launch as “version one.” The publisher may add more features to the collection in the future -- such as more search options -- through its partnership with Tizra, which provides the digital publishing platform for the project. Reed also said the project is a “first foray” into online collections that may help the publisher with future projects. The publisher has similar series on the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard and Henry David Thoreau.

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