One woman and the two books that changed her life

A family gift set Emma Justik on a lifelong love of books. Another book unlocked the gift of family

Matt Rea, '13 PhD - 29 April 2019

Emma Justik shows U of A library and information studies students Arija Fisher, left, and Jessica Frechette her most precious childhood book.

Emma Justik, '81 BA, sits in the Gregory Javitch Reading Room. It's a distinguished space in the Bruce Peel Special Collections library at the University of Alberta and she's encircled by a fortune's worth of old books.

Literary masterpieces, centuries-old manuals and culturally significant tomes, all displayed safely behind protective glass casing.

It took a team of specially trained librarians to gather and carefully preserve this collection but, to Emma, its worth is insignificant next to the faded children's book she pulls from her bag: a gift from her grandmother more than 80 years ago.

"Talent is everywhere, but not necessarily access. For Emma to give someone access to a spot in the program, I think that's heartwarming."
Toni Samek, chair of the School of Library and Information Studies

"She must have gone to town to get it," Emma explains. Growing up on a farm near Biggar, Sask., the closest bookstore was in Saskatoon, nearly 100 kilometres west - a difficult and long trip to make in the 1930s.

Once upon a time, her grandmother turned the pages while young Emma stared in wonder at her new gift. Now, it's Emma who holds open the book and Emma who is giving the gift. She will establish a bursary to help students become librarians. Emma's gift will also allow the U of A library to bring in the latest learning materials for students. "I am sincerely grateful for this gift," says Dale Askey, the U of A's chief librarian. "When donors support our libraries, they allow us to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of our students."

There is another book that is special to Emma, but this one wasn't a gift from her grandmother. It was the book that marked an emotional turning point in her search to find out more about her family history.

The search took her to libraries all over North America. At the Family Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, Emma had a life-changing moment. In an early morning visit on the last day of her trip, she grabbed a book at random from the shelves and started scanning the names, her finger moving down the page.

Suddenly she stopped and began to cry. Somehow, in a book she never meant to go through, she'd found multiple records of her long-lost ancestors.

Through tears, Emma slowly sifted through that book of records, tracing her lineage all the way back to 17th-century New York.

Learning her family story had a profound impact on Emma. It helped her understand that she wasn't just some random person, but part of a history. Part of a lineage. In her own words, "It meant I wasn't just found under a rhubarb bush!"

What began with a gift will end with a gift. Now a grandmother herself, Emma feels it's only right to pay back the people who helped her trace her family tree. Through her will, Emma is establishing a bursary for library students at the University of Alberta.

She will help the Masters of Library Information Studies program become more accessible for deserving students, regardless of their financial situation. It will also ease the burden of competing for funding in one of the largest graduate programs on campus.

The book from her grandmother remains a reminder of who she is and where she came from; a token that helps her understand her past.

Her gift to the U of A will ensure that when curious people like her visit the library in the future, a skilled librarian will be there to help them follow their curiosity. "If I can help spread knowledge to as many people as possible, that's a good thing."