"A breakthrough in journalism research," the director of the National Library of Israel, Oren Weinberg, called the institution's project to scan and upload to the Internet hundreds of thousands of pages from Jewish newspapers from the 19th century to the present.

Historical Jewish Press, whose official launch was on Monday, is a joint initiative of the national library and Tel Aviv University "that will give researchers, teachers, students and the general public rapid, easy and unprecedented access to periodicals," Weinberg said.

The website, www.jpress.org.il, currently holds more than 400,000 pages from 20 Hebrew, French, Judeo-Arabic (Ladino ), English and Hungarian-language newspapers that until recently were hidden away in dusty archives. Full-text search is available.

Among the collection's highlights: Davar, the Histadrut newspaper founded in Tel Aviv in 1925 by Berl Katznelson and published until 1996; Hatzvi, founded by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda; Hamagid, a weekly published in a number of European cities between the mid-19th century and the early 20th century, and Hamelitz, the first Jewish weekly in Czarist Russia.

The first Hebrew daily, Hayom, also from Czarist Russia - it was published in St. Petersburg from 1886 to 1888 - is there too, as is the Palestine Post, the forerunner of the Jerusalem Post, and Maariv from the start of publication until 1968. Also on the site are Jewish newspapers from France, Germany, Morocco and Egypt, among other places.

"It is an asset, an infinite treasure trove of data," said Hezi Amiur, curator of the national library's Israel collections. "There is no target audience that won't find something of interest in the site. Everyone who's visited it so far has jumped in deep and been unable to tear themselves away," he said.

According to Amiur, what is interesting about the digital archive is not only the news articles but also items such as advertisements, wedding announcements and lists of people trying to reunite with lost family members.

A chance browser discovers an entire world in these scanned newspapers: international news reports, articles on the Jewish world, works of literature, opinion pieces and essays, as well as advertisements, announcements and classified ads, all offering a wealth of information about their time.

Prof. Yaron Tzur, a historian from Tel Aviv University, is the main force behind the project. He launched its first incarnation in 2000, the Jews of Islamic Countries Archiving Project, for the purposes of research, and still recalls the frustration he felt while working on his master's thesis: "For months I searched for a newspaper from World War I. Eventually I found it, but it crumbled in my hands," Tzur relates. "Today, the site lends new life to newspapers from the past."

Before it was scanned, the source materials were in microfilm and print formats in the national library and other archives around the world. The current project is part of the digital revolution the Jerusalem institution has been undergoing for the past few years, in which books and other archive materials are scanned, transfered to digital media and uploaded to the Internet. Access to all the scanned materials is free.

The project developers have faced many technological challenges, including finding ways to scan and identify vowel markings in Yiddish texts and to cope with Rashi script - used in the Ladino newspapers on the site - as well as dozens of different dialects and typefaces.