At her retirement celebration last June 17, less than two weeks before stepping down as University Archivist, Elaine Engst was presented a box of freshly printed business cards by Anne Kenney, the University Librarian. What seems an ill-timed gift could not have been more appropriate for the occasion: The business cards bore Engst’s new title and her distinction as the inaugural Dr. Peter J. Thaler ’56 Cornell University Archivist.

“It’s more than fitting that you’re the first, considering the Thalers endowed your position in recognition of your truly extraordinary career at Cornell,” Kenney said at the gathering. “You’ve shared 36 years with us, motivating and encouraging others, envisioning better ways to do things and implementing changes with grace, humor, and style.”

In an interview with Cornell’s Division of Alumni Affairs and Development, Engst expressed her gratitude for the endowment: “I am deeply honored by Dr. Thaler’s gift, a wonderful culmination to my career at Cornell. It’s been such a privilege and pleasure to share our outstanding collections with so many terrific alumni and friends.”

Thaler, a retired surgeon, fondly recalled his own interactions with Engst. “I first met Elaine at an event Cornell had in Philadelphia in the 1990s,” he said from his home in Los Angeles. “I remember her explaining how the library was going to digitize its collections.” Following Reunion Weekend 2001, Thaler visited the library (“one of my favorite places on campus,” he said) and inquired about Cornell’s collection on witchcraft. Engst “brought out a volume from the 14th century, a manifesto prepared by the Catholic Church on how to identify witches and how to deal with them. It was Andrew Dickson White’s original copy.”

For Thaler, holding the book with White’s notes in the margins “was the most fascinating thing in the world.” He added: “It just confirmed my belief that the university has one of the greatest libraries in the world. And that no matter how much is digitized, there will always be a need for paper.”

According to Engst, the endowment of the archivist position will strengthen the Division of Rare and Manuscripts Collection (RMC) now and for generations to come. She added that she is “delighted and relieved” that she will be succeeded by Evan Earle ’02, MS ’14. “I know that he will be able to develop new strategies for 21st century electronic documentation, like e-mail, Web sites, and blogs, as well as to continue to collect more traditional university, faculty, and student papers.”

Earle, who has been working at RMC for the past 10 years, will assume the post on July 1. “As an archivist, I really enjoy working with alumni in preserving the history of Cornell and using the collections to educate others,” he said. “Beyond documenting Cornell’s history, the endowment will enable us to take further action on the important area of electronic records. With departments, faculty, administrators, and others producing much of their files in electronic format, new strategies have to be employed for archiving.”

He added: “Not only is the endowment a nice recognition for Elaine’s dedicated work as University Archivist, but it also is a formal acknowledgement of the importance of the position for the Cornell University Library system and for Cornell as a whole.”

This story was adapted from a Cornell Chronicle article.

Want to get an exciting behind-the-scenes tour of RMC? Watch this video with Cornelliana expert Corey Earle ’07 (and featuring a cameo by Evan Fay Earle).