With a firm hand and a smile that could charm the toughest solon, Minnesota native Eileen Delores Cooke (1928-2000) shaped and steered the legislative agenda of America’s libraries. She anticipated the role of telecommunications technology, held firm to the principle of freedom of information, and saw to it that there are public libraries in small towns throughout the nation.
Born in Minneapolis Cooke, graduated from St Margaret’s Academy and went on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Library Science from the College of St. Catherine.
From 1952 until 1964 Cooke served on the staff of the Minneapolis Public Library – working as a bookmobile librarian, branch assistant, hospital librarian and public relations specialist. For one year, 1957-58, she took a position as branch librarian at Queens Borough Public Library.
It was probably Cooke’s public relations acumen that caught the attention of Germaine Kretek, legendary director of the political arm of the American Library Association. ALA, with its main office in Chicago, had long maintained a strong presence in Washington, DC. In 1964 Cooke moved to DC where she held a variety of positions with the ALA Washington Office, serving as Executive Director for two decades, from 1972 until her retirement in 1993.
The early years of her tenure Cooke described as “a great time for libraries.” The Kennedy administration set a high priority on libraries, which the Johnson Administration continued. The passage of the Library Services and Construction Act in 1964 marked a time of great library development, particularly support for small and rural public libraries. The next years saw passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that included generous appropriations for school libraries. The Medical Library Assistance Act followed in 1966 along with the Higher Education Act of the same year, both of which included unprecedented funding for library support.
Each of these political accomplishments reflects the strategic approach and influence of the ALA Washington Office and of its Executive Director. Cooke herself described the philosophy and style of the Washington office as being firmly anchored on a commitment to “persistence, persuasion and planning.”
Not one to rest on the organization’s political laurels Cooke worked with library leaders to anticipate and hold at bay the changes that were to come with the next administration. One notable accomplishment was establishment of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science in 1970. NCLIS led in time to two White House Conferences on Library and Information Services, both of which engaged a inclusive public of library users and supporters, along with administrators and board members.
Cooke’s approach was to emphasize the importance of not only engaging but also training staff, board members and the public in the tools of effective politics. Today library buildings and networks thrive because of the groundwork Cooke laid decades ago.
Still, her legacy far exceeds bricks and mortar. Among other commitments, she was a formidable supporter of the Copyright Revision Act of 1976, working tirelessly for fair-use provisions of the copyright law, which required revision to respond to demands of evolving media.
In 1978 when the future of the Internet and the role of telecommunications was a gleam in the eye of futurists, Cooke was elected the first woman president of the Joint Council on Educational Telecommunications.
Perhaps best known for her encyclopedic knowledge of the facts and her dependability as a resource, Cooke was also an excellent communicator. Her public relations background and innate ability led her to write extensively for a host of library-related journals, including the ALA Washington Newsletter, a timely and habitually read information pipeline.
In addition Cooke recognized the way that libraries could collaborate with organizations and projects set on parallel paths – listening to their goals and pointing out the overlap of interests, whether with the needs of older Americans, school media professionals, literacy providers, proponents of library services to American Indian tribes, the National Periodicals Center, services for people with disabilities, preservationists or scholars.
On the occasion of Eileen Cooke’s retirement in 1993, former ALA President and Director of the District of Columbia Public Library, Hardy Franklin, described her as the “51st State Senator on Capitol Hill.”
After her retirement Cooke returned to her birthplace in Minneapolis. There she found time to enjoy the arts, including her own watercolor painting. She participated in activities at her alma mater, the College of St. Catherine. And well into her 70’s Cooke took on the awesome challenge of learning to drive for the first time in her life!
Cooke died April 30, 2000. On June 30 of that year Congressman Major Owens (D NY) rose to pay tribute before his colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives:
As a result of Eileen Cooke’s efforts the library profession moved into the mainstream of the political process. She demanded that the federal government recognize and respect libraries as universal institutions in our democratic society which deserve greater and more consistent support….
With indefatigable optimism Eileen Cooke worked with Members of Congress, staff assistants, educational and cultural organizations, and all others who supported education and libraries…
She was a fighter capable of hard-nose analysis but always focused and deliberative. She was a coalition builder who won both fear and admiration from her adversaries. Above all she had vision and could see far ahead of the government decision-makers. She understood the nature of the coming “information superhighway” and could predict the vital role of libraries and librarians as the traffic signals on this expressway into the cyber-civilization of the future.
The work of Eileen D. Cooke benefits all Americans. She has won the right to be celebrated and saluted as a Great American Point-of-Light.
In commemoration of Eileen Cooke’s commitment to open government the American Library Association continues to sponsor the Eileen Cooke State and Local Madison Award, conferred on Freedom of Information Day, held each year on March 16 to honor the birth date of President James Madison.