Describing her visits to the Watts branch of the Los Angeles Public Library as a child, Tracie D. Hall '91 seemed agape.
“It felt huge and like a church,” she told American Libraries Magazine.
In retrospect, Hall realized that the library, which she would walk to with her grandmother, was actually quite small, but “The books seemed to emanate a certain energy that made the space feel special and monumental.”
Hall’s experiences there and the UCSB Library, which became a refuge as a student, profoundly influenced her career path. After majoring in Law and Society and African American Studies at UCSB, Hall received an MA in International Studies from Yale and an MLIS in Library and Information Science at the University of Washington. In 2003, she joined the American Library Association, the world’s oldest and largest library association, as Director of the Office of Diversity, departing three years later to become Assistant Dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Dominican University. Since then, her career has alternated between foundations and libraries.
Two important figures in the Tracie Hall story are your grandmother and Sylvia Curtis, director of the Black Studies Unit of the UCSB Library. Could you introduce your fellow Gauchos to each and explain their significance to your career trajectory?
My grandmother Bessie Marie Sanders-Scott was from the rural south, a little town called Grand Cane, Louisiana. She was one of twelve children who alternated years working on the farm and going to school. She went to school in three-year rotations, trading off with her brothers and sisters and got as far as the ninth grade before she had to stop altogether. I don’t know that she’d ever gone to a library except as an adult, but her respect—almost reverence for libraries was clear. I was born when she was 60. She didn’t venture far home when I was growing up, but she made the library an exception. I’d go into that library and lose myself in all the books, but she never rushed me. I think she wanted me to have something that she didn’t have at my age, maybe something—because so many libraries in the south were segregated during her time—she couldn’t have. When ALA announced my appointment, I got so many calls from lifelong long friends all telling me how proud my grandmother would be. They are right. She’d be ecstatic that I became a librarian. She didn’t get to see that happen. But she’d want me to dress more formally. She’d ask, “Is that how librarians dress these days?”
Sylvia Curtis was a blueprint for me. I don’t know if she ever knew how much I admired her. I lived in the library at UCSB. I think that I logged more hours there than anywhere else on campus. Black Studies was a part of my double major so I was always seeking out Sylvia, asking her for reference guidance, but I was also checking out her style, her way of being in the world. She was smart and committed to Black scholarship, and along with the professors in the Black Studies Department: Claudine Michel, Douglas Daniels, Hyman Johnson, Gerald Horne --- the Black Studies area of the library created an intellectual cocoon for me. I know that UCSB and people like Sylvia are foundational not only to why I became a librarian, but to the kind of librarian I became, an activist, a public scholar.
Can you recall some of the books that were among your favorites when you were a child visiting your local library with your grandmother?
I don’t know if I should say, because I had bad taste! I loved any book where animals were behaving badly. There’s no use naming titles, because it all came down to the same premise: incorrigible animals running amok. I lived for those stories. I grew up in a very loving, but relatively strict and traditional household, so I lived vicariously through those stories of wild bears eating all of the cake at a birthday party or of dogs making off with miles of sausage links from the butcher shop. The stories and the illustrations in those kinds of books enthralled me. They nurtured that part of me that still bristles against taming.
When you were considering where to attend college as an undergraduate, what were you looking for, how did UCSB appear on your radar, and what made you decide to attend?
What’s interesting is that my first time on UCSB’s campus was because of my aunt. She was a nurse and had a daughter five years younger than me and needed me to baby sit while she completed her continuing education units. The course was held in Santa Barbara. Even though it was a short drive from LA, it seemed idyllic. While my aunt was in her seminar, my cousin and I visited UCSB., It was the first university campus I had been on. I was impressed by the all the buildings, the water. I think I felt an immediate connection. When it came time to apply to college my mother drew the line at staying in California. UCSB was my top choice.
To close the circle a bit, my aunt died shortly after I accepted this position. I talked to her about it at length. She wasn’t someone who was really effusive, but when I told her that I was considering this role, she said something like, “that sounds pretty good,” which is as close as I could hope to come to getting her blessing.
Can you describe your experience at UCSB as a student? Were you focused on academics? Sports? The social scene? Activism on and/or off-campus? Other activities?
I was definitely focused on scholarship. I thought I would go on to get a PhD, I couldn’t imagine not being in a university environment. I was also an artist-activist and still am.
I was in one of the group of students who organized the protests against the Gulf War. We organized thousands of people in sit-ins on campus. That’s where I learned the fundamentals of community organizing. We were so committed and so insistent in our resistance that later when I applied to graduate school, one program accepted me on the condition that I consent to not organize or join in protests if I attended. A university administrator actually called me to stipulate those conditions. I declined their offer and ended up going to Yale instead, precisely because of that.
I was a playwright and painter too and had the chance to produce and present plays and to curate art shows while at UCSB. It was the kind of school that allowed me to be well-rounded.
Asked if you had any trepidations about your role as the new head of the American Library Association, you said, "Fear is a natural reaction to new and uncertain circumstances. However, to dwell in or lead with fear or trepidation is a misdirection of energy" and that "I'm not walking in the door with fear." So, here you are, the 10th executive director in the 143-year-old history of the oldest and largest library association in the world--and one of the largest associations of any kind--and you clearly were not intimidated by the challenge. Everything you said is absolutely true, yet few people can internalize the philosophy. What do you think gave you the ability to pull it off?
For one thing, I have never had the opportunity to dwell in fear or self-doubt. Everything about my life and upbringing has demanded that I keep rowing or capsize. When I came to UCSB I came from south central Los Angeles and from a mother and father, who although both brilliant, hadn’t had the opportunity to attend a university. I looked around the campus, so few people looked like me, so few people came from the neighborhood I came from. But I knew one thing, no matter how lost I felt, I couldn’t go home without a degree.
Leading ALA I have to think that way as well. What’s the fight? To beat illiteracy which leads to overincarceration and underemployment and lifelong economic precarity. What’s the fight? To close the digital divide. To end the persistent disparity between which kids have the books or computer and Wi-Fi at home to complete their homework assignments and which don’t. And right now, when we ask what’s the fight? We have to add, to make sure that people and communities that are most susceptible to grave illness or death as a result of the Coronavirus have the data literacy skills they need to find and apply the information and critical data that can keep them alive. For me, the possibility of winning the fight, outweighs any fear I may have.
You said, "I want to create as much of an environment of levity and learning as I can" (in your new job). Levity is not a word typically associated with libraries or, for that matter, librarians. Do you think it is in short supply in the profession or is that just a stereotype of librarians? What can you do in your role to promote it?
I was talking more about Association work than libraries. Libraries are full of levity. The learning part goes without saying. But I think there is something about associations where—because we are so focused on the needs and wants of our members and the gaps that exist in the broader community—we can sometimes neglect to truly assess our assets or celebrate our victories. I want to change that. I think focusing on our strengths and flexing them makes us stronger.
I do want to circle back to the librarian stereotypes for a minute though. I will only say this: whoever believes all those stereotypes about librarians has never been to a bar during a library conference. Let me stop before I start naming names.
Your agenda--to see the Association promote universal literacy, close the school achievement and wealth gaps, end mass incarceration, diversity, equity accessibility, environmental and community sustainability--do you believe it is widely shared by your board, your staff, and your membership? Or, do you get pushback from some corners who see the Association's mission as more narrowly focused and want to see its resources used accordingly?
At this point that agenda has to be a shared one, because in my role I am responsible for setting the Association’s strategy and direction and that’s where I’m headed. The poet and Black feminist activist Audre Lorde was a librarian. She earned her master’s in Library Science in 1961. I imagine that if she were alive today, she would urge me and ALA to go further, push harder, break down all the barriers. If I have to choose which voice to listen to, I’m choosing Lorde’s.
Early on in the technology revolution, there was a fear that libraries might become irrelevant. Instead, they seem to have adapted successfully and many are thriving. What do you think are the most important things they did right? Do you envision a day when we won't recognize the library you described from your childhood--where, for example, there may not be any volumes in print? Would that be a positive or negative outcome?
The thing that makes libraries so durable and persistent—through wars and great depressions, and social upheaval, and pandemics is that libraries are more than buildings or books and media, or technology. Libraries archive memory, the progression of human thought, the evolution of how societies organize and interpret themselves. There is something in how we have come to form communities that instinctively says that somewhere in these spaces there should be a place where we keep the record of how we got there, what we did, why we did it, and what we have come to understand about ourselves over time. We will always have those places and mediated and unmediated means of accessing those records. And yes – if libraries are going to remain viable and vital, they must morph and iterate, and the containers may shift from print to purely digital or to other metadata formats. But is the content that’s important, not the container.
What libraries in the past have done right is to change. That will always be the way. Libraries are created by the people and they will change with the people. The connection is inherent.