Distinguished Alumni Award Winner Beyond the Cover

A lifelong champion of public libraries, Linda C. Cook has made the Edmonton Public Library far more than a place to borrow books

Sarah Pratt - 09 September 2016

As we look forward to Alumni Weekend (Sept 22-25, 2016), the Faculty of Arts is proud to share the stories of our inspiring alumni award winners!

She was one of those kids who read under the covers with a flashlight. Linda C. Cook ('74 BA, '75 BLS, '87 MLS) just couldn't put a good book down.

It may come as a surprise, then, that this avid young reader had no university ambitions at a young age. Her high school yearbook says she wanted to be a secretary, and this is how she started her career. Her father was a military man and her mother a Scottish war bride, so she grew up learning the value of hard work and practicality.

Cook soon tired of secretarial work, and because she worked for the University of Alberta, night classes were free. She enrolled in a course called The English Novel with professor George Baldwin, and it changed her life. She fell in love with the class and with Baldwin as an instructor. She eventually left her job and registered as a full-time student, earning her bachelor of arts degree in 1974.

"University changed my life," says Cook. "It opened up new possibilities."

The next year, she earned her bachelor of library studies and began her first library job at the Misericordia Community Hospital. She was 25 years old, happy and in love with her job and her hometown of Edmonton.

Cook learned that librarianship is about helping people and making a difference.

After serving as director of the Yellowhead Regional Library System in Spruce Grove, Alta., Cook began a new journey in 1997 as chief executive officer of the Edmonton Public Library.

For 19 years, until retirement in 2015, she championed the public library as it grew to 19 branches. In that time, the library implemented a self-check-in and checkout service, free memberships, an Aboriginal services librarian, a lending machine in an LRT station, new and renewed libraries, and the Safe Communities Innovation Fund, which employs outreach workers to help high-risk customers use the library.

"Libraries are an essential service," says Cook. "They are preventive to drugs and crime. We have to offer something to [people at high risk]." She recalls one library patron, once homeless, who is now studying at the U of A to become a social worker.

In 2014, EPL became the first Canadian library named North America's Library of the Year, a proud moment for the dedicated CEO and her staff.

As she settles into retirement, Cook continues to work to make a difference by volunteering with the Primary Care Networks Health Board, Legal Aid Alberta, the Telus Edmonton Community Board and the Edmonton Police Foundation board. She has won the U of A's Library and Information Studies Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni Award, both the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal and Diamond Jubilee Medal, and the Canadian Library Association's Outstanding Public Library Service Award. She was the first recipient of MacEwan University's Gold Medal.

When Cook thinks back to her university days, she remembers them as the best time of her life.

"In university I learned how to be a better person," she says. "It opened doors in my mind."

First published in the Autumn 2016 issue of New Trail, the U of A's alumni magazine.