ALA’s Tracie D. Hall Receives 2022 NBF Literarian Award

On September 7, American Library Association executive director Tracie D. Hall was awarded the National Book Foundation (NBF) Literarian Award for 2022. The annual award celebrates an individual “for a lifetime of achievement in expanding the audience for books and reading,” the NBF website states. This marks the second year that the honor has gone to a librarian; 2021’s award was given to Nancy Pearl.

Tracie D. Hall head shotOn September 7, American Library Association (ALA) executive director Tracie D. Hall was awarded the National Book Foundation (NBF) Literarian Award for 2022. The annual award celebrates an individual “for a lifetime of achievement in expanding the audience for books and reading,” the NBF website states. This marks the second year that the honor has gone to a librarian; 2021’s award was given to Nancy Pearl. “In this moment when books and libraries are under attack more than ever, we were thinking of [Hall] and her work,” NBF Executive Editor Ruth Dickey told the Los Angeles Times.

Hall will be honored at the 73rd National Book Awards ceremony on November 16, along with the winners in five book categories and the Distinguished Contribution to American Letters award, which will be presented to cartoonist and editor Art Spiegelman. LJ caught up with Hall to talk about what the recognition means to her and to the field, and banned books from the McCarthy era onward.

LJ : Did you have any idea that you were in the running for this award before NBF contacted you?

Tracie D. Hall: I was surprised—I didn’t know that it was coming until I had already been selected. I was contacted by the National Book Foundation, and their introduction was to let me know that the L.A. Times, which is my hometown newspaper, was going to be seeking to do an interview. It’s only been since the announcement has been made that I’ve had an idea of the history and the gravity of the award.

What was your background as a reader like?

I come from a background that looks at reading as reparations. My grandparents, both of whom are products of the Great Migration, grew up in the rural South with very limited access to reading materials, in communities where libraries, if they were present at all, were segregated. When my grandmother and grandfather moved to Watts [Los Angeles], where they were able to buy a home after saving for years, the library was down the street and around the corner. My grandmother in particular was insistent that I use it. I remember her saying that she hadn’t had access to anything like that when she was growing up. My grandmother saw libraries as meeting the larger kind of community needs, and she entrusted that role to librarians.

My mother taught me to read very early. My surviving brother is seven years older than me, and my mother had me believe that to go to school you needed to know how to read, write, and do math. When my brother was doing his homework, she was like, “Well, you better practice”—probably to keep me out of my brother’s way and to allow him time to do his own homework—so I became a very early reader. And I was so surprised when I went to kindergarten and none of the other children seemed to know how to read, write their names, or identify numbers. I fell in love with books very early.

How do you see libraries stepping in to strengthen that kind of family dynamic around reading?

When I see libraries that have early literacy programs that embrace the whole family, or have family literacy programs where they’re supporting parents and caregivers, and becoming effective first teachers by also recognizing [caregivers’] own capacity as readers and learners in addition to their children’s, I think those are the most effective. I think also, when libraries find families where they are, and don’t wait until families come to libraries—when they’re out in social service agencies, or setting up pop-ups and kiosks or appearing at festivals and fairs, or in places where people shop, or laundromats, or barber shops, all of these amazing models that we have seen are effective over the last few years, when I think libraries understand that there is a continuum of opportunities for relationship building, then I think that we see really effective and holistic engagement.

What do you think of NBF’s decision to spotlight librarians for the past two years?

It is a recognition for the entire sector of how important libraries and librarians are as agents of social change and facilitators of inclusion. A lot of that work, obviously, is brought into stark relief as we see libraries across the country protecting the right to read. I accept this award recognizing that it is the entire field that continues to be recognized. First was Nancy Pearl last year, whom I took courses with when I was at the University of Washington Information School as a student, and whom I had an opportunity to work alongside when I was in my early career at the Seattle Public Library. To be the second librarian in a row is a recognition of the capacity of librarians to help to facilitate social change. It’s also an honor in that it connects me to that larger legacy of librarianship in general.

How do you plan on leveraging the award in the face of increasing challenges to libraries?

I have worked inside and outside of libraries, and I have caught people by surprise sometimes when they find out that I am a librarian. I hope to continue to challenge and to shift any kind of stereotype or monolithic idea of who librarians show up as. But I also want to continue to work in a way that demonstrates, as my colleagues do across this country, that librarians are some of the most effective agents of community change and development, and that librarians are part of a constellation of workers and laborers and agents who create change at a meaningful level every single day. Some of the early reaction [to the award] from both within and outside of the library community is affirming that whenever a librarian is recognized on this type of level, it lifts up the entire field.

What are you reading right now?

I’ve had it for a while, but I am reading All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, because he is the honorary chair for Banned Books Week.

Also, I went to Chicago Public Library and picked up a few books that I have been wanting to take another look at. I’ve been going back into the archives, looking at what ALA’s reaction and response was during the McCarthy era. Because I always think that we have a big responsibility—myself, our staff, and our member leaders—to ensure that ALA is on the right side of history in times like this. I really believe in library scholarship, and looking at past practice. So I have gone back to the archives to look at ALA’s convenings in 1952 in New York, when they held the first conference on intellectual freedom more than a decade before the office itself was established. The 1953 follow up to that focused on book selection, because even during the waning part of the McCarthy era, there was still this question about whether or not collection development should be taken away from libraries and politicized. And of course they affirmed that intellectual freedom was at the heart of our practice. But I was also interested in what were the books that were being heavily banned then, before we created Banned Books Week and began to keep a running list of books that were banned. The books that were being banned during that period were Robin Hood, because of its focus on interrogating the hoarding of wealth, and Civil Disobedience by [Henry David] Thoreau, because it was already becoming an early primer for the civil rights movement. So, I have spent some time going back and trying to look at various editions of those books. Books that were banned 50 years ago and books that are being banned right now—that’s making for some interesting comparative reading.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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