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Meet the longtime librarian being honored at the National Book Awards


Some of the leading lights of literature will be honored at the National Book Awards in New York City next week. And for the second year in a row, the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service will be given to a librarian. Tracie D. Hall has championed books and readers at libraries in Seattle, Queens, Hartford and New Haven. She's now executive director of the American Library Association and joins us from Chicago. Tracie Hall, thanks so much for being with us.

TRACIE D HALL: Scott, thanks for having me.

SIMON: Is it tough to be a librarian now?

HALL: Oh, my goodness. It's always the best possible time to be a librarian. But today we find ourselves facing a level of book censorship like never before. And we are finding that once again, doing the work of knowledge dissemination is especially tough at this time.

SIMON: What might you say to family members who will say quite sincerely, look, I - you know, I just don't want my child upset or shaken up or even hurt by something they read?

HALL: Yeah, well, that's what books and art and good media does. It takes us outside of ourselves. And I think that that's the role of literature, that's the role of reading, to move you, to shake you up and to make you someone new. And so I would say to anybody who said to me, I don't want my child shaken up, I would say that we want to create people who can be with other people. And the only way that we do that is by allowing ourselves to come into contact with other thoughts and ways of living. And in my upbringing, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. And my grandfather was very quiet, very loving, but he wasn't always telling his story. And I remember reading the book "Heidi," you know, Heidi in the Alps with her grandfather, and her grandfather seemed gruff. And I remember learning a little bit about his sort of tough exterior and then looking at my grandfather and realizing that my grandfather, who was so loving, also had these soft spots. There I was in Watts, and here was a young child, I think, in the Alps, helping me to understand a man who rarely spoke very much, but helping me to see in his ways his love for me. That's what I want for every child and for every adult.

SIMON: I gather you grew up in south Los Angeles.

HALL: Yes, Watts.

SIMON: Can you tell us about any particular library or librarian? What put you on the path to loving books?

HALL: My grandmother put me on the path to loving books because my grandmother and grandfather were participants in the Great Migration from Grand Canyon, Louisiana, to south Los Angeles. And we took to certain types of institutions as points of pride. One of them was the Watts Towers, but the other one was our yellow library, small library branch, which was then located on 103rd Street. Today it's on Compton Avenue. And I remember my grandmother, who rarely went out of the house, would take that slow walk to the library. And I remember one day in particular when I had checked out almost every book I could carry. She said, we didn't have anything like this when I was growing up. You know, access to libraries was a privilege for my grandmother. And today it's like coming full circle to lead this august organization with so many thousands of librarians and libraries connected across the country, and especially to be standing for the right to read at this particular time.

SIMON: Are there libraries today that are not just a source of information and entertainment and reflection, but a kind of home for youngsters and families?

HALL: Yes. Palaces for the people.

SIMON: Yeah. That's important to keep that, isn't it?

HALL: It is. You know, today we have over 160,000 libraries - so school libraries, public libraries, academic libraries, the place where anyone, no matter who they are, can come in and feel a sense of ownership. And they deserve to see themselves and their lived experiences reflected on our shelves, to see themselves at or behind the reference desk, to see themselves in the information that they are using to navigate their daily lives. And that's what we work towards.

SIMON: Tracie D. Hall is executive director of the American Library Association and winner of this year's Literarian Award at next week's National Book Awards. Thank you so much for being with us.

HALL: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRUIT BATS SONG, "ABSOLUTE LOSER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.