July 10, 2006
58, Number 34
July 10 , 2006
Next month, for the first time in some 35 years, Linda Matthews will not be coming to work at the Woodruff Library. In August, the vice provost and director of libraries will retire. It’s a life change that in a lot of ways hasn’t really sunk in yet. In fact, Matthews hasn’t really given much thought to what she is going to do.
“That’s one of the best things about retirement,” said Matthews, who came to Emory as a reference archivist in 1971 shortly after earning her doctorate in American history from Duke University. She has a master’s from Duke in that same subject and a bachelor’s in history from Winthrop College in South Carolina.
“I’m looking forward to an unscheduled and an unplanned life for a while—just doing the things I want to do and that interest me at the moment,” she continued. “I am deliberately not scheduling anything for the first six months or so.”
That will be quite a contrast from her life now, where even months from retirement Matthews hardly has been cruising. In May, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue presented her with a 2006 Governor’s Award in the Humanities. She was recognized for “creative leadership and careful stewardship that has expanded Emory’s [library] collections and made the university a national and international destination for humanities researchers.” It’s a nice cap to what has been a remarkable career.
Matthews first became interested in libraries while a graduate student at Duke. She worked in the manuscript department, where she was introduced to the inner workings of libraries and the multitude of resources they offered students and scholars—if they knew where to look. From that moment on, she was hooked.
“As I went through graduate school, I realized that I knew a lot about resources for research that some of my colleagues probably didn’t know about,” Matthews said. “It’s a very complex and rewarding career. But I didn’t think of librarianship so much as I thought about how much fun it was to work at a research library.”
When Matthews came to Emory in 1971, the paint had barely dried on the Woodruff Library, which had been opened two years earlier. All she knew about the school was what she learned from her husband John, who graduated from Emory College in 1965. The two met while in graduate school. What Matthews didn’t know about Emory or its libraries, she learned very quickly. In 1977, Matthews earned a master’s degree from the University’s now-departed library school.
“The biggest changes since I have been here are in the growth of technology, the growth of our archival and rare book collections and in the transformation of the library from an acquirer and cataloguer of books to a role as a real teaching institution that provides electronic access to more and more information, journals, and reference materials, then building these tremendously important special collections and archives,” she said.
Matthews spent 20 years as director of special collections and archives, so it is understandable that she mentioned it prominently, but there is no doubt that the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library (MARBL), as Special Collections is now known, is one of the University’s signature entities.
While previously geared toward Southern literature and history and other early Americana, under Matthews’ guidance, MARBL’s holdings expanded to include some of the finest collections of English-language literature and African American history and culture at any university, anywhere. While having these types of holdings is good for an institution’s reputations, it’s their value to students and scholars that Matthews finds most compelling.
“The use of original materials is really the closest you can ever get to its creator,” she said. “You can touch an original W.B. Yeats poem will all its handwritten changes. There is no place else that kind of thing can happen. Who knows, a student’s excitement about going to graduate school or becoming involved in a research project may have gotten its genesis when that student was able to have some direct contact with those kinds of materials. Anyone who is able to get involved on a personal level with something that transforms the way they think about learning or gets them excited about something they never really thought about before—that’s what a library is really all about.”
Matthews saw those sorts of experiences every day on the library’s 10th floor, and it was a great place to be. Still, the idea of new horizons was appealing. That’s why in 2003, following the retirement of Joan Gotwals, Matthews took up the challenge of serving as vice provost. While in Special Collections, Matthews had served on the libraries’ management team and also worked for a time in both development and personnel administration, so she was well versed in the libraries’ system. Still, she learned something new every day.
“When you are head of one particular unit, you see the pressures in terms of funding or staff, time, from the perspective of that particular unit,” she said. “But when you look at all of them together, you see how they have to fit. One of the things I have tried to put a priority on is to encourage all library staff is to see our place in the University in a broad way.” And it is that broad view that has served Matthews well her entire career.
“I think the library—-all Emory libraries—has followed the projection of the University,” she said. “The University can’t really be a great research university without a great library. As the University has grown, so has the library.”
Currently, Matthews is readying her office for the incoming vice provost, Richard Luce, previously the research library director at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The desktop-to-ceiling bookcase that lines her far wall is more than half empty—the result of her purging of unnecessary reports and other documentation that would be more cumbersome than informative.
That a research archivist would so thoroughly purge papers may come as a surprise—but it probably shouldn’t.
“Actually from my background as a professional archivist, I know that you shouldn’t save everything,” Matthews said, disappointing pack rats everywhere. “You have to look at records in terms of what’s important for documentation of the organization. Contact the University Archives!”
So while Matthews is being pretty methodical when it comes to disposing office contents, she’s holding tight to and saving a lot of other things—like her 35-year-old collection of memories from campus.
“I think maybe we don’t fully appreciate the Emory community until we think about being away from it,” said Matthews, listing as perhaps her biggest regret not making more time for campus activities like taking in a lecture. “I’ll miss just being able to walk out my door and have the wonderful Carlos Museum next door. And [I’ll miss] all the people I have been privileged to work with. They have been so creative and supportive.
“I think I’ll miss just being able to walk into the book stacks, getting immersed and pulling things off the shelves,” Matthews continued, sounding wistful. “I’ll miss every day just hearing about some wonderful new piece of research or new collection, some new great technology our staff have come up with. There is something going on here everyday that’s amazing, and that’s just talking about the library not the University as a whole. I have never had a dull day here.”
And while she may not have a lot of specific plans yet, Matthews doesn’t expect to have a lot of dull days once retirement comes. She said she’d have more time for gardening, reading (an appropriate hobby for a libraries director) and traveling with her husband, himself retired from the faculty at Georgia State University.
“I just haven’t fully grasped that I’m leaving next month,” she said. “I probably will the day before. There is just too much to do!”