Youngest-ever archivist is steeped in Cornell history

08/20/15

Evan Earle is Cornell’s fifth university archivist, and at 35, he’s the youngest to be named to the role. But as a fourth-generation Cornell educator from a history-revering family, he’s been preparing for it his entire life.

“I’ve been coming to Cornell since I was an infant. I’ve been ingrained with the Cornell spirit. I wasn’t forced to come here, but it felt right. I bleed Cornell red,” said Earle ’02, M.S. ’14, whose family includes Cornell teachers Paul Hoff, M.S. ’40; Wendell Earle, M.S. ’48, Ph.D. ’50; Brian Earle ’68, M.P.S. ’71; and Corey Earle ’07. “I’m really honored to be in this position.”

On July 1, Earle officially became the Dr. Peter J. Thaler ’56 Cornell University Archivist, succeeding Elaine Engst, M.A. ’72, who retired in June after serving as university archivist for 20 years. Part of Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC), the university archivist is responsible for documenting, preserving and showcasing a dauntingly wide – and increasingly digital – range of Cornelliana, from official university records to faculty research to yearbooks and scrapbooks to photos of campus construction.

“If it’s something that’s going on in public we want to make sure we capture that, so that people looking back 100 years from now, if they’re curious, can see a snapshot of a day in the life of the university,” Earle said.

The Cornell University Archives encompass thousands of historical artifacts, from the private papers of administrators to oral histories and motion pictures to the original Cornell charter. Earle has a particular fondness for Ezra Cornell’s wedding socks, which astronaut and Cornell mechanical engineering graduate G. David Low ’80 took into space in 1990.

“There’s not a lot of research value, but it’s just one of those things that is really cool,” Earle said.

Earle’s archiving work has ranged from the Native American collections to viticulture, but he has engaged consistently with the challenges of digital preservation. Finding the best, most reliable ways to store electronic artifacts, and making sure they remain accessible, is one of his major goals in his new role.

“One of the things I like to bring out of our vault is the cuneiform tablets, which are 4,000-year-old clay tablets, and you can still read them perfectly well,” Earle said. “You think about the emails people are sending today, or their digital photos, and those have a much more temporary feel to them. Who knows if they’re going to be around in 4,000 years? Preserving the 1s and 0s of today’s digital documents is a big job.”

After graduating from Cornell, Earle’s work as an art collection docent at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology led him to RMC for research. He began working there in January 2005.

“He was fearless, but he didn’t hesitate to ask questions, and that’s such a fabulous combination,” Engst said. “He became increasingly valuable.”

Anne Sauer, director of RMC, called Earle a “perfect choice” for the position of university archivist, which was recently endowed by the Thaler family.

“His Cornell roots run deep – deeper than almost anyone I’ve met so far,” Sauer said. “But more importantly, he has a really strong foundation as an archivist. When it comes to electronic records, Evan has been ambitious in going out and getting the training he needs to understand how we’re going to grapple with these issues. He’s absolutely the right person for this.”

This story originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.