The Library holds the world’s largest and most significant collection of the scientific works of Isaac Newton (1642-1727), described by many as the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived. His works launch the new Cambridge Digital Library.
The project aims to make Cambridge a digital library for the world and will move on from Newton to some of the University Library’s other world-class collections in the realms of science and faith. These include the archive of the celebrated Board of Longitude and the papers of Charles Darwin.
University Librarian Anne Jarvis said: “Over the course of six centuries Cambridge University Library’s collections have grown from a few dozen volumes into one of the world’s great libraries, with an extraordinary accumulation of books, maps, manuscripts and journals. These cover every conceivable aspect of human endeavour, spanning most of the world’s cultural traditions.”
Launching the website with more than 4,000 pages of its most important Newton material, the University Library will upload thousands of further pages over the next few months until almost all of its Newton collection is available to view and download anywhere in the world.
The digitisation of the Newton Papers and development of the sophisticated technical infrastructure that will underpin the new digital library was made possible by a £1.5m lead gift from the Polonsky Foundation in June 2010. This gift was one of the earliest and largest that the Foundation has given as part of its International Digitisation Project, which aims to make the world’s intellectual treasures freely accessible to a global audience.
Dr Leonard Polonsky said: “I am delighted to have been able to play a part in making the Newton collection available to the world and look forward to viewing the many other exciting collections the Library is preparing.”
Dr Polonsky’s landmark benefaction provides a strong basis for attracting further support for this ambitious and important initiative at Cambridge.
In opening up Newton’s papers to the eyes of the world, the newly digitised archive reveals that not all his peers would have approved of his output being shared quite so openly.
Several of the manuscripts in the collection contain the handwritten line ‘not fit to be printed’, scrawled by Thomas Pellet, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who had been asked to go through Newton’s papers after his death and decide which ones should be published.
Grant Young, Digitisation Manager at the Library, said: “We are launching our collections to the world with perhaps some of the most important papers and documents in the history of science.
“In addition to his Principia and notebooks, we’ve included his ‘Waste Book’ – a very large notebook Newton inherited from his stepfather and filled with notes and calculations when he was forced to leave his studies in Cambridge during the Great Plague. With plenty of time and paper to hand, Newton was able to make significant breakthroughs, particularly in his understanding of calculus.
“Anyone, wherever they are, can see at the click of a mouse how Newton worked and how he went about developing his theories and experiments. Newton’s copy of his Principia shows how methodically he worked through his text; marking alterations, crossing out and annotating his work in preparation for the second edition. Before today, anyone who wanted to see these things had to come to Cambridge. Now we’re bringing Cambridge University Library to the world.”
For the digital launch of the Newton Papers, Cambridge University Library has been aided by JISC (Joint Information Services Committee) who awarded a grant to the library and the Newton Project at the University of Sussex for the Windows on Genius project.
This project has enabled the linking of Cambridge University Library’s high-resolution facsimiles with transcriptions produced by the Newton Project. Researchers, students and interested members of the public are now able to zoom in to each page to explore the text in incredible detail and make use of the transcriptions to understand Newton’s mind – and handwriting.
Work on the digital library project began in 2010, with the Newton collection being photographed over the summer of 2011. At full speed, 200 pages were captured each day. However, some painstaking conservation work had to be undertaken on several of the manuscripts and notebooks before they were considered robust enough to be digitised.
Added Jarvis: “With great collections comes a responsibility to make these as accessible as we can. Now, through the use of new technologies and with vital support from the Polonsky Foundation and bodies such as the JISC, we are able to open up our collections in ways that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. Wherever possible we will seek to enhance our digital collections by aligning them with scholarly research. Our initial collection, the Newton Papers, is a good example.
“Through our collaboration with the Newton Project at the University of Sussex, we’ve been able to provide superb transcriptions alongside the images of many of Newton’s manuscripts.”