Library leader Tracie D. Hall to join iSchool faculty

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Tracie D. Hall will join the Information School this fall as a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence. Hall, a 2000 graduate of the iSchool Master of Library and Information Science program, has served in a variety of roles in libraries, government, academia and the arts. They include tenures as vice president of strategy and organizational development at the Queens Public Library, as assistant dean of Dominican University’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, as Culture program director at the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, and as deputy commissioner of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Most recently, Hall served as executive director of the American Library Association from 2020 to 2023. She is currently a visiting fellow at the University of London's Royal Holloway college, where she is researching the impact of Brexit on public libraries in the United Kingdom.

Hall is an outspoken advocate for libraries and against censorship. In 2023, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Institute named her the recipient of the Medal for Freedom of Speech and Expression. She answered a few questions about how she will approach teaching students at the iSchool.

What are some of the core values you bring to your teaching?

I believe that being a lifelong learner is a prerequisite for being a good teacher. So first and foremost, I bring a commitment to continuously putting myself in positions where I am exposed to new ideas, frameworks and contexts. It is important for students to see that expertise and mastery are career-long quests rather than states that one reaches and stops. As a librarian and advocate committed to widening access points to critical information and as an educator preparing students for that work, curiosity and humility are core values, as is a commitment to social justice. I was born and raised during the second and third waves of key civil rights movements centered on race, gender, and economic and political access. Thus, for it to be truly of value, to be truly impactful, I believe that all knowledge must have some liberatory aim or lead to some kind of real and positive change, whether personal or institutional, material or immaterial.

Is there a disconnect between what is taught in MLIS curriculum and the reality of working within librarianship? How are you proposing to help address this through your role?

To put it bluntly, yes, there is a disconnect between LIS curricula and LIS practice. Some of the directness, if not stridency, in that answer comes from what I have observed having taught in two programs, having served as guest lecturer in more than a dozen others, and from what I have heard from MLIS students and the organizations that hire them.

I think the programs that still teach the mechanics of library services — and we need more of them — often do a very passable job of introducing their students to the techniques that inform library practice. What I often hear from new MLIS graduates and those who hire new graduates is that these techniques are being taught devoid of context. It’s crucial to teach information management, children’s literature and user experience, but it is also critical to prepare students to carry out those services in real-world settings where large segments of the community may be navigating low literacy, or may be unhoused, or may be incarcerated or reentering their communities after incarceration, or may be neurodiverse, or may be someone whose primary language is not English, or may be dealing with social isolation or trauma, or may be aging, or may see libraries as prohibitively raced and classed, or simply, too complicated or intimidating to use on their own. If we are not giving students the tools to contend with the real-life social contexts that can limit library use and information access — and I don’t think traditional library schools or iSchools are fully there yet — then I believe we are not adequately preparing students to work in contemporary information environments, which I would argue are more complex today than ever before.

I think programs like UW’s iSchool's that include faculty who’ve had significant practice in the field and have held leadership positions in complex contexts can help close this gap. In my case, I’ve taught library management courses as adjunct or visiting faculty in library schools, while I was simultaneously managing large departments or guiding strategy at a Fortune 500 company. Many of my former students are now directors or lead administrators of libraries and information organizations. They’ve told me that the real-world examples offered in class helped equip them for these roles. 

How have you been spending your time since leaving the ALA?

I had imagined that I would finally be able to catch my breath, but it has been an incredibly busy period. I’ve been asked to speak on Capitol Hill a few times about the danger of the rise of censorship and about the perils of our inattention to low adult literacy and the fact that in some parts of the country, one or two out of five adults can’t read past the fifth-grade level — and how that neglect has led to over-incarceration and generational poverty. I’ve also keynoted several conferences and appeared in the media quite a bit. At the end of the year, I spent time as a guest of the library communities in Bogota, Colombia, and Melbourne, Australia, giving public talks and soaking up any bit of knowledge I could from library and civic leaders in both cities.

“I believe that all knowledge must have some liberatory aim or lead to some kind of real and positive change, whether personal or institutional, material or immaterial.”

Currently, I am in the UK as a visiting fellow at the University of London and its Royal Holloway college, where I am researching the impact of Brexit on public libraries. In addition to experiencing massive cuts in funding and staffing, nearly 25 percent of libraries have been closed altogether. I am interested in the impact those closures have had on broader educational, economic and civic access and what that portends for the U.S., where the censorship legislation that has been introduced or passed in all but four states has increasingly been followed by legislation to decrease or eliminate library funding. I am hoping I can get several articles and maybe even a manuscript out of this line of research. I do have some other obligations while here. I am meeting with and speaking before the leadership bodies of the library, archive and cultural leadership communities. 

Later this summer, just before coming to the iSchool, I will be back in Europe to give a commencement address at a university and will hopefully use that time as an opportunity to bring some stakeholders together to talk about the implications of the rising tide of book censorship across Europe on global democracy.

You led the ALA through a tumultuous time. What do you view as your legacy there?

It was a truly extraordinary period and one I will never forget for sure. A challenging time, yes, but also exhilarating. I feel that it is a little early to think about legacy. Legacy is one of those things that is best considered with the passing of time and observed through impact on others, so I wouldn’t hazard to speak to it too soon, or from a first-person perspective.

I can say that when I began my tenure as executive director, which was two weeks before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, there were three clear and immediate goals:

  1. Grow the association’s revenues;
  2. Raise the association’s public profile; and
  3. Make the association’s commitment to social, racial and economic justice even more tangible.

That charge was my compass through the toughest moments. It was a profound privilege to work alongside the most incredible staff and membership in realizing each of these aims. Though there is always, always more and better work to be done, I am grateful to have left ALA in a vastly improved financial position, with more large grants coming in from major foundations and going out to libraries across the country to expand services to their communities; to have contributed to its public influence through high-profile media attention and awards; to have worked with librarians working in jails and prisons to bolster ALA’s work in expanding library and information access for people who are incarcerated; and to have raised awareness about the role that libraries can play to support people with low literacy or who lack broadband access or digital navigation skills.

I think it is important to say that I have viewed my work at ALA through the lens of having been a Spectrum Scholarship recipient. The scholarship was created to address the lack of Black, Indigenous, Latino, Asian and other people of color in the LIS sector, which is a gap that contributes to those same communities being underserved by libraries. Activist librarians and association leaders created Spectrum. I was in the first cohort of students to receive a scholarship to complete my MLIS at the UW iSchool, and from my time as a student to my first tenure at ALA directing what is now its Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services, to my work as executive director, I have always felt a responsibility to pay that investment in me forward.

So, yes, along with an incredible staff and a committed membership, I had to navigate some rocky terrain as executive director, but to me that was about giving back to a community that has given so much to me.