Kevin: There are more than 115,000 libraries in the United States today, but what purpose do they serve when information is so readily available on the internet? How must libraries evolve to remain relevant in the digital age? What can they contribute to building a more diverse and inclusive society? And how can the libraries do more to support education throughout the country? This is "What I Want to Know." And today I'm joined by Tracie Hall, to find out. Tracie Hall is the executive director of the American Library Association, which represents 57,000 members in the academic community and government spheres. She is with us today to discuss the essential role of modern libraries and how they can best contribute to a more educated, informed, and equitable society. Tracie, welcome to the show.
Tracie: Thank you for having me. I am super excited.
Kevin: I always ask my guests about their background, and in doing my research on you, I understand that your grandmother was a big influencer, particularly as it relates to reading and the libraries. I mean, now you're the executive director of the American Library Association, but how does your grandmother's influence shape you to being where you are today?
Tracie: My grandmother, I'm gonna call her name. Her name was Bessy Marie Giard [SP] Sanders, that's her family name, Scott. She married my grandfather, Jack Edgar Scott in Grand Cane, Louisiana, where they met. And both of them were two of the most resourceful and intelligent and intellectually curious people I'd ever met. Both of them also, like one out of five adults in this country, lived with very low levels of literacy. My grandmother who went to school, she was one of 12 children. So she went to school in three-year rotations.
She grew up working on a farm in Grand Cane. My great-grandfather, Joseph Pierce Sanders, her father had the children working in three-year rotations. They could go to school in those alternate years. So my grandmother went to the third, the sixth and the ninth grade before she stopped school altogether. So for her, libraries were something that she saw as necessary to use. I always say that for her, libraries, especially libraries that were accessible to black people, were a kind of reparations.
Kevin: That's really fascinating because I grew up in Indianapolis in the '60s and '70s, I think I've said this on a previous episode, I was so proud when I got two cards with my name on it. One was the NAACP junior member card, because my mother was active in some civil rights marches in and around Central Indiana. And then my library card. For us, it was the introduction to the world of reading and world of imagination, the world of what's possible, particularly at a time when there were so many challenges being a person of color. I mean, there are today, but back then it was a different, different level of challenge I think, you know.
So I can relate to that and I think many folks of color and many oppressed people who have had the opportunity to be exposed to that library experience and sort of finding, you know, their world in a role, in shelves of books, it was a time that was meaningful. But I wanna ask you, is that still relevant today? I know you get that question all the time. I wanna talk about the American Library Association, but I do wanna unearth this whole notion of the role of libraries, which is quite different today than what we were talking about with your grandmother.
Tracie: Yeah. But I don't know that it's so different, right? I think that there is a sense of social responsibility, that's one of the core values of the American Library Association of access, of equity, diversity and inclusion, of intellectual freedom. All of those things were important I think to my grandmother as well, which is why she would take that long sojourn with me to LA public libraries, right there, the Watts branch, because my grandparents were part of that great migration out of Louisiana to Los Angeles, where they were joined by so many other Louisianans and Oklahomans and Texans, etc. But I think that for the American Library Association and for my grandmother, there was some shared values there. And one thing that I do say is because I've done a lot of things in my career, I started off in working in homeless shelters, my own family experience, housing inconsistency.
And so I've always related with people who are unhoused. And also I've always seen my housing situation as well as my economic situation, despite education and the jobs I've held, I'm always seeing whatever status that I may have attained as precarious and as very dependent. I started out my career directing homeless shelters for youth. And the first thing that I would do is just like my grandmother, as soon as someone came into the shelter, we would have these opportunities to expose them to the community around the shelter so that they knew how to navigate the community once they left, especially during the day or looking for jobs or looking for longer term housing.
One of the things I would introduce them to first of all, was the public library. And I would always go with them in a van. I would drive that big old van that we had. And I would walk up to the librarians and introduce this cohort of residents and ensure that they receive library cards. I remember one of the young men once he got his library card and he looked beyond that desk, at all of the books and resources and all of those things, I remember that he turned to me and he said, "You mean, all of this is free?" And I have to say that that was probably the moment where I started to imagine that libraries could play a role in social mobility and economic mobility that few institutions could. I think that my journey to librarianship began that day.
Kevin: I agree, but also know that for many young people, their access to content isn't found on shelves full of books, it's through the internet or the PDA. How do we make the current library structure or even physical setup, attractive to young people when they're so used to just pulling out their phone all hours of the night, when they're trying to look up something, Google something, do an assignment, or even communicate with friends?
Tracie: Libraries have long been in, I think the business of education and access well beyond books for a very long time. And I think that we are interested in information access if we are librarians regardless of the container, right? The book is a legitimate container, the phone is a legitimate container. One of the things that we know is that, especially when it comes to phone access and mobile access as more lower income residents in any community have access to a mobile phone more so than any other type of container. I mean, it's ubiquitous and it is something that is constant. So I think that we are starting to see not only library resources, but public health and educational resources wisely use the phone as a platform.
Kevin: And I think that makes sense. Let me ask you this. What about this idea of programs? Because a lot of people really are not aware of some of the programmatic offerings that exist in your neighborhood library. Talk about that and how that is a way to make sure that as we move toward this hybrid world, which I think you're absolutely right, that's where we're headed, it is an opportunity for us to have kids in a safe place, engaged in some of the programs that are relevant to them. And at the same time, use the library as a container, use the home computer as a container or the mobile device as a container for learning.
Tracie: First of all, I think one of the tenants of library and information services is that information wants to be free. So it's only natural that libraries would be places for adult basic education, for family literacy, for adult literacy, for English as a second or tertiary language instruction. The American Library Association has a program that is taking off like wild fire across the country called, Libraries Build Business, and is really focused on giving entrepreneurs BIPOC and lower income entrepreneurs, the tools and the resources and most importantly, the connection to build small businesses because we know many times businesses run by lower income and BIPOC entrepreneurs often don't have the liquidity or access to investments as peer businesses when they're being spawned.
So the library is stepping in that gap. We also know that libraries tend to be a place where young people and people of all ages are exposed to the arts and humanities in addition to education and also social service programs. I've worked in many libraries where in addition to summer reading programs, we were also sites for lunch programs as well in the summer when young people may not have access to reliable or steady access to food or nutrition, especially people living in food deserts. And then we know that libraries tend to be the primary resource in any community for access to the internet. And then programs, teaching people digital literacy skills, etc.
Kevin: Now, one thing that I wanted to touch on relating to that is sort of the tendency for some of our homeless population to use libraries. And you work with the homeless communities in some of your previous roles. And I remember parents have said to me of young kids that they may not feel safe, the kids being safe having their children go to a library if they're at a young age. And what's that balance like? Because we know that in many urban areas, particularly some of the challenges of housing that that has been a place where many people are able to utilize the services because they don't have it at home because they may not have a home.
Tracie: You know what I love about libraries is I think that we are one of the most visible, most accessible democratic institutions in any community. And many times people want to erase unhoused people, people want to erase people who have been incarcerated. We actually create systems to erase those individuals. And not remembering that we're talking about individuals who also have lives of the mind, right? Who are also intellectually curious, who also can be intellectual producers, who also have information needs. And so when I hear that, what I'm saying is that if you have a homeless population in your city, you should definitely see people who are unhoused in the library.
We can't banish people, but I think what we can do is to learn to live together and to respect each other and respect each other as information seekers. And that's one of those sort of like grand denominators that brings us all together. So when people say that libraries are safe spaces, I can buy that, but they're not sanitized spaces where we remove elements of a population that people may want to disappear. We have to wrangle with who we are as a society. And I have to say that a library and libraries are the places where we do that most often.
Kevin: You work with a lot of cities, cities and communities, name a couple that you feel really get it in terms of integrating their library system into the community's educational approach and the like.
Tracie: Queens Library, at the time that I worked there was the second largest provider of adult education in the entire state of New York. I remember seeing so many people receive their GEDs and literally in one cohort, just crying because there were so many adults who had brought their adult children and there was not a dry eye in the place, but I definitely wanna shout out Queens Library for doing that work. I think Chicago Public Library, the American Library Association is based in Chicago. And so I have to call out Chicago Public Library because of the partnership with Chicago public schools and the ways in which there has been a massive effort.
You were talking about the pandemic and World Health Organization declared a COVID-19 a global pandemic, I believe it was March 10th. By April of 2020, so one month later, black unemployment had risen by 11%. It was the first demographic to reach double-digit proportions because many people, and what we do know according to many studies is that black and Latino households tend to be about 10 years behind their white peers in terms of high quality internet and broadband connection. There were many in the black and Latino community and Asian community, indigenous communities that did not have the luxury of working remotely, working remotely, or being able to keep your job during a pandemic is really... This pandemic has been hard on everyone, but being able to keep and maintain your position has really been available to some and not to others. I definitely wanna say that Chicago has worked across the public library and the public school system to connect students to broadband, students and their family, and they've done it on a massive level.
Kevin: So Tracie, as the executive director of the American Library Association, you've been an outspoken person about the value of libraries in building diversity and inclusion. What is it about libraries that make them a powerful force for equity?
Tracie: Well, libraries have a mandate to serve everyone in their community. Because of that, there is this direct mandate for equity and inclusion as well as accessibility. So when we talk about ethno-linguistic diversity, when we talk about racial diversity, etc., we see that as foundational to be able to capture the lived experiences of individuals and communities, bodies of knowledge related to those lived experiences, and to ensure that everyone sees themselves in the library.
Kevin: I did want to talk about the book banning, book censorship, and I want you to expound on this because this is a huge, huge issue. And so this is what I really wanna know, what should the standard be that we use in determining whether we should censor or ban any books?
Tracie: Just as we talked about, everyone should have a right to access the library. We also have to stand against book bans, right? We have to unite against book bans because everyone should have the right to read. That's fundamental to self-determination and agency. And we can even go back to the slave code laws in the 18th and 19th centuries, when not only was it illegal or criminal for blacks and other people of color to read, but it was also illegal to teach them how to read. And there's something in this era now that we have actually passed the McCarthy era in terms of the number of book bans, there's something to me about which books are being banned that gives me pause.
We are talking about books that highlight the lived experiences and accomplishments and ways of being in the world of black and indigenous people of color and people who are a part of the LGBTQIA experience or people in general, who are opting to live their own lives on their own terms. When we think about the content that is being banned and what we know is that people of all political persuasions believe that in freedom of speech and believe in freedom of access, it is hard for me to not see a very deliberate agenda that I think seeks to politicize reading in a way that I don't think that our country founded on our democratic principles can withstand.
Kevin: Tracie Hall, I so appreciate you joining us. And your comments are very insightful. Appreciate your passion, all that you've done to try to make sure that people understand the value of not just libraries, but also the value of reading as a way of life, not just for children, but for adults as well. So thanks for joining us on "What I Wanna Know."
Tracie: Thank you for having me.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. Also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Tracie Hall is executive director of the American Library Association, representing 57,000 members in the academic, community, and government spheres. Over the years, she has worked at the Seattle Public Library, the New Haven Free Library, Queens Public Library, and Hartford Free Public Library.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.