At a party several years ago Shelby White, widow of billionaire investor and philanthropist Leon Levy, met Marina von Neumann. The pair were exchanging bon mots about the Institute for Advanced Study when von Neumann offered an anecdote regarding her father John’s papers from his years there.

White, an institute trustee, learned to her astonishment that those papers were nowhere near Princeton. Rather, they had been donated to the same archive that holds the professional papers of one of the institute’s most famous alumni, J. Robert Oppenheimer — the Library of Congress.

Marina von Neumann, a board member at the institute and renowned economist in her own right, gladly would have donated her father’s papers to the IAS vaults, she told White. Her father, after all, was, one of the first five faculty members appointed, and until his death in 1957 his work in computer science proved to be the bedrock of the digital age.

But in 1974 there were no archives at the institute and no mechanism through which to donate. So Marina von Neumann gave her father’s astounding body of work to Washington.

The irony was obvious. This was the Institute for Advanced Study, the gold standard for profound genius and thought, and yet no one had thought to save the work of its members. At least not until 1985, when archivists from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania made a recommendation to do so. A year later the institute formally founded its archives in an effort to file and sort papers and objects from as far back to its beginnings as possible.

But here’s the catch: Since this archive was an informal adjunct to the institute’s Historical Studies-Social Science Library and not an actual department, its collections did not receive full-time attention. Nor did its curators actively collect anything. They simply kept whatever faculty and members cared to leave the institute, and they filed their found treasure wherever they could. The cataloging was organized as well as the space and funds — both appallingly minimal, given what the archives are comprised of — would allow, and access requests typically started with E-mail requests for an appointment.

With the fear that any number of important professional papers could slip through the institute’s fingers at any time, White returned to New York intent on making Marina von Neumann’s story the last of its kind.

In March the Manhattan-based Leon Levy Foundation quietly informed the institute that the latter would receive $3.5 million to create and maintain a permanent, separate archives department. In October the institute publicly unveiled the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, the showroom for a collection of institute memorabilia that includes the personal effects from Einstein’s home on Mercer Street and other items from the school’s 79-year history.

The grant allows the institute to collect and conserve its holdings — comprised mainly of faculty papers, recorded oral histories, and photographs — and to formally organize, catalog, and preserve future items. Visitors now also will have a central place, in the library’s annex behind and to the right of Fuld Hall, to research the work of their predecessors and peers. But you still need to make an appointment.

The money covers all startup costs associated with the department and funds an endowment to support its operation, including providing for a full-time archivist and staff.

Given in April, the money almost immediately unearthed hidden treasure. Stored in these dusty, somewhat neglected vaults were 14 photographs of a weathered Albert Einstein that no one knew were there. Taken by fashion photographer Herman Landshoff between 1945 and 1950, the photos show Einstein in varying states of pensiveness and repose.

These prints, and everything else, are now the charge of archivist Christine Di Bella and assistant archivist Erica Mosner. Di Bella, whose last job was archiving collections in the Philadelphia library system, came to the institute immediately following the Levy award. Her plans are clear: “We want to be more aggressive in collecting.”

The archives department remains under the direction of the Historical Studies-Social Science Library, and Di Bella answers to Marcia Tucker. Tucker was, for all intents and purposes, acting archivist before the grant. “As you may imagine, Marcia’s job managing the Historical Studies-Social Science Library and its staff keeps her incredibly busy,” Di Bella says. “Continuing to be responsible for the archives as well would have been impossible as the program grew.”

While the department’s holdings of the professional papers of individual faculty members are limited, Di Bella says there are several such donations pending. “But I’d prefer not to discuss them until they are official.”

The department does have some papers. The works of mathematician and topologist Deane Montgomery are here, as are those of Kenneth Setton, one of the leading authorities on the history of medieval Europe. Otto Neugebauer’s work in mathematics and the history of science, including ancient Babylonian math and astronomy, will stay in Princeton too.

But there are other treasures than professional papers, and the department’s new showroom displays some very cool things in its display case. Over here is the institute’s first guest book — and yes, that is Einstein’s actual signature, the first one ever entered into this log in 1933.

Over here is a reprint of a letter to Frank Aydelotte, the institute’s director between 1939 and 1947, from T.S. Eliot, saying he would love to visit Princeton in 1948. So long as Aydelotte understood that “apart from the possible vicissitudes of the world we live in, such engagements have to be contingent on the possibility of travel.”

Here is Kurt Godel’s National Medal of Science from 1974. Godel, the 20th century’s most important mathematical philosopher, asserted that God really does exist, and generated a lot of mathematics to back up his claim. If you don’t know what Godel looks like, look up a little. There’s a nice color photo of him, slicked black hair and black-rimmed glasses, casually conversing in German with Albert Einstein as they stroll the institute’s grounds, circa 1950.

The mini-violin on the next shelf belonged to Einstein, a gift from his sister, Maja. Though Di Bella counts herself among a rare and fortunate few to have handled such an item, she does lament that there is no preserved sound clip of Einstein playing the violin. Perhaps it is just as well. The few contemporaries who heard him play suggest that little of the professor’s gifts carried over from physics.

On the bottom shelf is a piece of the JONIAC. In the post-World War II years, computers were room-sized mainframes with monikers that spelled out acronyms for sprawling scientific terminology. This, one of the last remaining pieces of the JONIAC in Princeton, is about the size of a cinder block and probably heavier. It is a tiny part of the overall machine affectionately named after its creator, John von Neumann, a combination of his name and the acronym suffix “integrator and computer.”

By the way, those multi-million-dollar computers that TV news stations and the National Weather Service use to give you the week’s forecast stem from von Neumann’s work on the institute’s Electronic Computer Project in the postwar years.

Von Neumann stocked his academic pantry with theoretical meteorologists who whipped logic, mathematics, engineering, fluid dynamics, and meteorology into an entirely new way of looking at what tomorrow will bring.

One of those men, Joseph Smagorinsky, went onto become the first director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, now at Forrestal Campus.

Di Bella’s favorite treasure from the display case is a small schematic of the campus’ first (and still main) building, Fuld Hall. Look closely and you will see that this map contains the names of the institute’s earliest faculty members inside their office spaces.

Einstein occupied Room 115; von Neumann 112. In Room 116 was Oswald Veblen, whose name is attached to the most prestigious prize in geometry. A pioneering topologist and longtime professor at Princeton University, Veblen helped design the world’s first digital computer, the ENIAC, with von Neumann’s crew.

Perhaps fittingly, until the Levy grant came along the institute’s new archives room was a computer room. Where once there were terminals there is now an assortment of archival prints of some of the institute’s most famous faces — including the 14 new ones of Einstein — and the ever-present pair of white gloves needed to sift through them.

Di Bella dons the gloves with a barely contained awe. She’s been an archivist much of her adult life, and she still shakes her head in disbelief when she touches something that once was the property of Albert Einstein.

The items in this archival carton through which she now sifts will not be part of the public display. These, in fact, are items from Einstein’s home — paintings and photographs and prints that visitors gave him. Some of the pieces are renditions of the man himself — the most whimsical being a drawing of Einstein’s famously bushy face by one of the greatest socialist painters of the 20th century, Ben Shahn.

Other items, muses Mosner, are ones that belie what friends, family, and visitors thought the good doctor might like. Much of it centers on the violin — images of the instrument, images of music and musicians. Some are portraits of people Einstein might have known.

Some are just plain puzzling. Nobody here has a clue about the print of two long-horned oxen yoked to a cart in what looks to be a back road somewhere in central Asia. There is no record of the donors and no record concerning how Einstein might have lived with these gifts. But he saved them with loving respect and took their relevance to his grave.

Try not to get the impression, however, that the institute’s new archives department is simply a repository of all things Einstein. Di Bella says the institute is fortunate enough to have inherited the professor’s belongings (if not his work, which is housed at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in accordance with his will), but Einstein’s things comprise a fairly small part of the institute’s holdings.

The archives, she says, house more than 700 linear feet of holdings, and about 700 boxes of work by the institute’s various directors, including that of its founder Abraham Flexner.

All that is now under the archives department’s care has been accessible since the 1980s, and despite the lack of a formal department, institute faculty and members (those who might be called “fellows” elsewhere) were never shy about poking around. “We have lots of researchers who, bless their hearts, have always been able to find us over the years,” says Mosner, who has been here since 1999. “And this is without our being more public.” The new digs just make everything a lot more user-friendly.

Mosner, born in the Bronx, has lived in New Jersey since age 10 and inherited a love of art and language from her parents. Though not a professional artist, Mosner’s mother painted “some of my most cherished possessions.” Her father, an attorney in New York who previously had spent nearly 20 years with the city police department, left her with an enduring love of language.

She earned her bachelor’s in psychology from Rutgers and started her career in the nonprofit realm. She was a program officer with the New Jersey Council for the Humanities for about 10 years and an associate festival coordinator for the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. She began at the institute in the director’s office and has since held administrative support positions with the School of Historical Studies and the Historical Studies-Social Science Library. Most recently she was a library assistant in charge of cataloging and archives, under Marcia Tucker.

That she is not a trained archivist is why she is the assistant to Di Bella, despite her familiarity with the collection. “I was pleased to be able to help Christine during the period when she was getting oriented,” Mosner says. “But she is now way ahead of me in terms of understanding not just the individual parts of the collection, but the overall implications of those parts and how they fit together to tell the institute’s story.”

Di Bella, born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, grew up surrounded by academe. Her father was a professor of chemistry at the University of Minnesota, and she was drawn to the written word. She was also drawn to the east coast, where here parents’ families lived — her father’s near Boston and her mother’s near Philadelphia.

Those ties brought her to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where she earned her bachelor’s in English in 1995. She then earned a master’s in information — “the successor to library science — from the University of Michigan in 2000.

With a significant portion of her family living back east, Di Bella came as the project archivist at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. In 2006 she was named the archivist and project director at the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries, where she oversaw the collections of 22 libraries in the city.

A natural-born bookworm who expected to work as a librarian until she hit graduate school, Di Bella has had to contend with the lack of permanence inherent to the digital age. (She is also aware of the irony that this very place helped draft the digital gremlin to her work). As an archivist, her bread and butter lies in the ability to preserve tangible records of the past. E-mails, web pages, and texts convey conversations among today’s best and brightest — people like Eric Maskin, who won the 2007 Nobel Prize in economics, four years after he moved to the institute — but digital communications, though efficient, are transient. When paper was king, any written communication, no matter how seemingly trivial, could be preserved.

“The archives profession has been grappling with the thorny questions of digital preservation and electronic records management for decades,” Di Bella says. “It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not just a matter of saving the files themselves, but also saving the hardware and software used to create them — or that at the very least can read the files.”

Digital preservation, however, is not merely a technological challenge. It’s a psychological one. “One of the biggest challenges with digital records is getting people to think of them as just that — records,” Di Bella says. She tries to keep digital records as part of her conversation with members of the institute, but as with so many issues in her fledgling department, “we are still in the early stages of coming up with a specific preservation strategy.”

Paper, though, and contrary to what many think, is not necessarily on the way out. It has, however, changed. Lower tree fiber content has become the standard — good for the world, but lousy for archivists. Modern paper, particularly fax paper, is acidic and deteriorates much faster than its ancestors. Innovations in inks also have rendered the printed word more temporary. And as the world gets more eco-conscious — Xerox, in fact, is developing a printer whose ink disappears in a few days so that one page can be used multiple times — the archivist’s ability to secure original documents gets tougher to do.

When records are created on subpar paper, an archivist typically photocopies them onto acid-free paper at the time of processing, Di Bella says. “If the original is an important artifact, such as an Einstein letter, we will sleeve it in mylar or another kind of archival protective sleeve. If it is really important, we might send it out to a conservator for deacidification.”

The archives house a primarily paper-based collection dating to the institute’s inception. Though the professional papers of Oppenheimer, Einstein, von Neumann, and Godel are not here, some of their correspondences are. The archives also contain minutes of board meetings, miscellaneous correspondences about past faculty members, and records of the von Neumann-directed Electronic Computer Project.

All is not paper, however. The institute also houses a series of tapes to maintain an oral history. The initiative began in 1988, when the institute interviewed members of its mathematics school. Oral historians soon followed up by collecting recordings made by social, historical, and natural scientists.

And, of course, there are the photographs. Most are posed portraits and group shots, but many are candid, almost casual affairs. This casualness should not be a surprise. Margaret Sullivan, one of the institute’s public affairs associates, says that in an environment for, by, and filled with geniuses, it is easy to just accept that genius as routine.

Sullivan is awed more by the institute’s history than by its present, and occasionally reminds herself that the faculty and members of the institute today are every bit as brilliant and innovative as their predecessors, if not quite so famous.

Take for example Eric Maskin. Maskin lives in the house Einstein once occupied on Mercer Street, a tidbit the world’s press found irresistible when he won his Nobel Prize two years ago. Everyone, from CNN to small newspapers, wanted to interview him in “the Einstein house” in the wake of his prize.

“He needed a ride, so I took him home,” Sullivan says. “And I had to stop and think: ‘I’m driving a Nobel Prize winner to Einstein’s house for an interview with CNN.’ That’s the kind of thing that impresses my family the most. And I call him Eric.”

Nobel laureates, of course, are no stranger to these grounds. There have been 22 associated with the institute, including John Nash, the economics laureate portrayed in the film “A Beautiful Mind,” who still stops by regularly for lunch most days. There have also been 34 winners of the Fields Medal — a prize given by the International Mathematics Union to scholars age 40 or younger, and of which only 48 have ever been granted — and numerous winners of the McArthur Genius grants and the Wolf Prize. The institute’s most famous current resident, professor emeritus Freeman Dyson, won the latter in 1981 for his work on quantum theory.

Formed in the Socratic principle of pure thought, rather than that of standard, degree-driven scholarship, the Institute for Advanced Study founded in 1930, courtesy of a $5 million grant from retail mogul Louis Bamberger and his sister, Caroline Bamberger Fuld — whose second husband, Felix, gave his name to Fuld Hall — specifically to give life to the vision of the institute’s unapologetically idealistic founding director, Abraham Flexner.

Flexner had seen the great research universities of Europe — All Souls, Oxford, College de France — and dreamed of an American enclave in which scientists, mathematicians, and theorists could ponder their fields without need of publishing or teaching — or anything else that distracts them from pure thought.

“I am not unaware of the fact that I have sketched an educational Utopia,” Flexner once wrote. “I have deliberately hitched the institute to a star; it would be wrong to begin with any other ambition or inspiration.”

Utopia caught on fast. Almost immediately the greatest minds of the age took academic refuge here, seeking the passage between what was known and what was possible.

The institute also offered political refuge to those — like Einstein, Godel, von Neumann, and mathematician Hermann Weyl — who fled central and eastern Europe just as the world was skidding into yet another major war.

These men were among a clutch of European Jews who came to America to escape Naziism. The timing for the institute could not have been better. Europe’s Jewish exodus contributed mightily to the early years of the institute, and in one of history’s greatest episodes of comeuppance, the Institute for Advanced Study housed most of the very minds that contributed to the defeat of Naziism.

After the war, the institute continued to draw the best and brightest, the most prominent being the man credited with making the atomic bomb a reality, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer, who succeeded Frank Aydelotte as the institute’s director, was a unanimous choice by the board in 1947, and it is easy to see why. He had headed the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Energy Commission, and during the war the institute had contributed heavily to that and other advanced military projects.

The institute’s influence on national defense and atomic politics, intended or not, was palpable. But this position in return contributed to persistent misunderstandings about the institute itself. Despite what many call it, the IAS is not a think tank. Agendas and policy decisions are not made here, nor is there any mechanism to lobby.

Yet there is a great mystique surrounding the institute, starting with its geography. The IAS rests on 800 acres that are not easy to find because the grounds are tucked away off a piece of Olden Lane. And even if you drive down that way, you will not see the institute’s buildings from the road. You will see what looks to be a public park.

The institute’s geographic obscurity was a deliberate choice by its founders, but detachment begets mystery, and mystery begets myths. Founded on starry ideals and purposely kept away from the world at large in order to allow great minds to work undistracted, the institute left the world at large to make up its mind.

For the most part, the world knows only that high-level thinking goes on here; and people have, consequently, tended to mislabel the institute a think tank.

Also, the Institute for Advanced Study is not, as many people believe, connected in any way to Princeton University. This misunderstanding is partly due to the institute’s Princeton address, but it has more to do with Albert Einstein.

Before Fuld Hall was completed in 1939, the institute’s offices were located on the university campus. Einstein worked from his office in Jones Hall. Consequently, many assumed (and many still do) that he worked for the university itself.

But he never did, for even one day.

Some of this misconception stems from the fact that many people simply do not know how the institute works. It sounds like a school — and it is — but it is not the kind most of us are used to.

Though unencumbered by grades or the need to publish — the lifeblood of an academic career at most colleges — members of the institute do attend classes. As you might guess, however, these are not classes built around rows of assigned seats. At any given point, you might find a small clutch of members huddled around a table in one of the libraries.

Or you might find them sprawled on the ground before the outdoor blackboard.

The classes, Sullivan says, are actually seminars or workshops, “either on a regular schedule or occasionally. Members are free to attend or not, as they see fit.” Some feature institute faculty; others feature speakers from outside institutions or non-faculty institute members.

There also is no tuition. The institute is financed by individual donors, private foundations, and various arms of the federal government.

The Department of Defense is a major donor, as are several federal agencies you might expect to value the school: the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Security Agency.

The State of New Jersey also has helped fund the institute’s work in theoretical computer science and the IAS/Park City Mathematics Institute, Sullivan says.

Now under the directorship of Peter Goddard, a mathematical physicist appointed to the post in 2004, the institute looks to stay as small as it can, though it is branching out into new areas, such as biology and East Asian studies.

There appears, however, to be no plans to quell the school’s founding focus on futuristic technology. The program of interdisciplinary studies, led by astrophysicist Piet Hut — one half of the brains behind the Barnes-Hut simulation that allows scientists to study what happens when two galaxies collide — looks to combine such disparate ideas as paleontology and artificial intelligence into a new world view.

Above all, the Institute for Advanced Study plans to stay focused on its idealism.

As its catalog states, “The really important ideas, the ones that change the way we think and the way we live our lives, are likely to be found by researchers following their curiosity into the unknown.”

And in the records of their work.

Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein Drive, Princeton 08540; 609-734-8000; fax, 609-924-8399. Peter Goddard, director. Home page: www.ias.edu.

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