Telephone Lines through Time

Emory is fortunate to have a university archivist, someone devoted solely to preserving the university’s trajectory by caring for its treasures. One imagines the qualities that make a good institutional archivist might include a natural interest in history, a reverence for old things, an insatiable appetite for organization, and an encyclopedic memory.
But I also suspect that the real heart of such work, and its primary source of satisfaction, is creating a meaningful connection between the past and the present. After all, there’s no point in meticulously preserving, cataloguing, and caring for treasures like archival photographs and letters only to lock them safely away; the purpose is to make them available so that new generations can engage with that history and perhaps learn from it.

Ginger Smith 77C 82G served the Emory Libraries for thirty-eight years in more than a dozen significant roles. But she is perhaps best known for becoming Emory’s first university archivist in 2003, a position she held until 2009. A leader in the field, Ginger was among the earliest library professionals to earn the designation of certified archivist. She retired this summer, and her wisdom, wit, and extraordinary talent for joining Emory’s history with its future will be much missed.

There are times when the ties felt between past and present are especially strong—even eerily so. In her song “Virginia Woolf,” Emily Saliers 85C of the Indigo Girls describes reading the diary of the British novelist and immediately feeling a crackling connection—“on a kind of a telephone line through time.” (Incidentally, the alumnae duo will be performing during Emory Homecoming Weekend September 24 to 27; I hope you can join us.)

Math professor Ken Ono, featured on the cover, recounts a similar experience in his profound sense of affinity with the legendary Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ono and his father share a deep fascination with Ramanujan’s life and his mathematical genius, which has shaped Ono’s own brilliant career as directly as if Ramanujan had reached across history to guide his hand. The connection is so strong that Ono was asked to serve as an expert consultant on an upcoming movie about Ramanujan’s life.

“It is the story that gave my father hope and inspiration as a hungry mathematician coming of age in postwar Japan,” Ono says; and, “Following Ramanujan, whether I’ve meant to or not, has always been my destiny.”

As any archivist would tell you, historic objects can also carry the power to unite people across chasms of time and space. Daniel Wechsler 90C is a book dealer who with a colleague purchased a rare reference book that was published in 1580. As he closely studied the handwritten notations that appear throughout the volume, Wechsler cast his imagination back more than four centuries, envisioning the book’s owner scratching away with his quill. And the hypothetical conclusions that he eventually reached about that long-ago writer—speaking on a kind of telephone line through time, through a text whose preservation is noteworthy in itself—are truly startling.

Not all links between past and present are quite so dramatic. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Emory’s first class of Woodruff Scholars, and we celebrate with a retrospective of sorts, highlighting the rich cross-generational relationships forged by the prestigious scholarship program. Many Woodruff alumni show their appreciation for that legacy by helping to recruit new scholars, raising the bar of excellence for each class.

One graduate remembers an intimidating encounter with Robert Woodruff himself, the Atlanta icon whose generosity made the scholarship program possible. Separated by decades, the student suddenly felt a keen desire to be worthy of Woodruff’s investment and expectations. “I felt challenged and supported at the same time,” he says.

No doubt the incoming class of Woodruff Scholars—and all our new students, for that matter—have similar feelings about the challenges that lie ahead. It’s exciting to contemplate all they will accomplish in the days to come, before they take their places in the archival pages of Emory history.—P.P.P.

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