In a surprise announcement, the American Library Association said that executive director Tracie D. Hall has resigned from her position effective October 6, bringing a sudden end to her tenure after what has been a challenging four years for the organization.
“Tracie has been a strong guiding force for ALA and a tireless champion for libraries, library workers, and the communities they serve,” said ALA President Emily Drabinski, in a statement. “A passionate steward of our profession, she has demonstrated unparalleled leadership and an unwavering commitment to ALA’s mission, especially at a time when there has been unprecedented attention around our work. As she now moves onward, we extend our heartfelt gratitude to Tracie for her outstanding service and indelible contributions to ALA and wish her continued success in her future endeavors.”
Notably, the move comes in the middle of Banned Books Week, and in the midst of a years-long, politically organized surge in book bans and, more recently, right wing political attacks on the ALA in a handful of states, including Montana, Texas, and South Carolina, where state library agencies have pulled their support from the organization.
In a statement, ALA said it will name an interim executive director in the coming weeks, and will then launch a nationwide search for a successor.
Hall's tenure has almost certainly come during one of the most challenging periods in the organization's history. She was named to the role in January 2020, after a lengthy, contentious national search, the first female African-American executive director in the association’s long history. Just days later, at the 2020 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia, it was revealed that the association was facing a serious financial shortfall. And just weeks later, the nation went into lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, forcing libraries to shutter, putting library workers in danger, and forcing ALA to cancel its in-person conferences for nearly three years, during which time libraries and librarians became targets in a coordinated political movement to ban books.
ALA has also seen significant changes as an organization, including the implementation a membership-driven plan to modernize the association, and winding down its annual midwinter meeting and replacing it with a new show, LibLearnX.
“To serve as executive director of ALA at any time would be a formidable task,” said Hall, in a statement. “To take on that role at the outset of a pandemic and during an unprecedented escalation in censorship attempts has required intensive effort, which I have relished and learned from. And though there is still so much to do, I believe I am leaving the Association—stewarded by its dedicated board, membership, and committed staff—on course to achieve new levels of impact in the realization of its mission.”
In a statement, ALA officials said Hall leaves behind "a string of key accomplishments," including advancements in "accessibility; adult and family literacy; arts access; broadband access; digital inclusion; library services for the incarcerated, and, perhaps most visibly, in defending the freedom to read. She also received numerous accolades, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Foundation and a place on the Time magazine TIME100 list, the magazine's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
At the same time, in the face of unprecedented challenges, the ALA has also found itself increasingly embattled, facing criticism from within its ranks, questions over the efficacy of the organization and its future, and under political attack from the right for its support of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and its defense of the Freedom to Read, for which Hall had become a recognizable public figure in recent months with her mantra: "free people read freely."
In a 2020 interview with PW, Hall was asked what she hoped her legacy would be.
"I would want my legacy to be that I led the association boldly into the future. For me, that means a wider recognition of the library as key to our national infrastructure. I also hope to break wide open the notion of what people think about when they think about who a librarian is or what they look like," she said. "So, during my tenure it is important to give librarianship my face. And by that I mean the face of people from my community—black, brown, working-class, activist. I want to make sure librarians and library staff that are sometimes marginalized along with the communities they come from are brought into the circle. I want my legacy to be that I expanded the field’s promise and capacity in every way."