For the second time since Hurricane Katrina, the American Library Association held its annual conference in New Orleans, June 23–28. And despite a faltering economy, stressed library budgets, high gas prices, and the somewhat out-of-the-way host city, the conference blew past expectations, drawing over 20,000 total attendees (librarians and vendors)—some 3,000 higher than initially forecast.
"It was a great show," said Alan Walker, director of academic and library marketing and sales for the Penguin Group. "Attendance was strong and booth traffic was never slow." Penguin hosted more than 20 authors at this year's event, Walker told PW, including Eleanor Brown, Nathaniel Philbrick, bestseller Harlan Coben, and ALA opening keynote speaker Dan Savage, whose book It Gets Better was published by Dutton in March. In his moving, entertaining keynote, Savage told librarians it was an "honor and a thrill," to address them, because the It Gets Better campaign is, at its heart, about "access to information."
Talia Sherer, director of library marketing for Macmillan's adult trade group, agreed with Walker. While attendance was down substantially from last year's show in the populous, more accessible Washington, D.C., Sherer said ALA 2011 "definitely exceeded expectations," and that booth traffic was "extremely heavy." Macmillan also hosted some 20 authors, including Nevada Barr, John Hart, and Mary Kay Andrews. Galleys of forthcoming works, like Amy Kathleen Ryan's YA novel Glow and Shannon Hale's Midnight in Austenland were, Sherer said, "snapped up fast."
In making a quick return to New Orleans, a special bond seems to have grown between the city and the library community—local restaurants and businesses put out signs welcoming librarians, and New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu was on hand to personally thank ALA for being the "first major convention" to come back to New Orleans after the floods in 2005 and for returning again this year. "You gave us great hope and faith by coming here and being part of the rebuilding," Landrieu said at the conference's opening session. "Libraries will let New Orleans be smart again, be competitive, and make everyone want to come to New Orleans."
Like the recovering city itself, however, librarians are fighting through some tough times. Despite a positive atmosphere at the show, and a greater turnout than predicted, the conference program highlighted the complex problems facing libraries.
With budgets being slashed, and an antitax, antigovernment political climate, library advocacy was a major theme of ALA 2011. Sessions covered a range of topics, including how to use statistics to show the library's real economic value as well as New York City librarians enthusiastically showcasing their activist efforts to bring attention to their library system's proposed budget cuts, which have included a "Zombie March" and a 24-hour read-in.
Marilyn Johnson, author of This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, headlined the Presidents Program, sponsored by ALTAFF, and told librarians to exploit the symbiotic relationship between authors and librarians in their advocacy efforts. "Without you, there is no us," she said, "and without us, there is no you." Meanwhile, away from the show floor, librarians organized a "flash mob for libraries" at Jackson Square, which coincided with a flash flood: a drenching rain, despite the bright sunshine.
E-books, as expected, were also a hot topic at ALA 2011, with numerous panels discussing strategies for the digital future, including a packed session featuring Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, who reported that his Open Library e-book program had just signed up its 1,000th library partner. Under the program, libraries can have their books scanned in partnership with the Internet Archive and made into e-books available for lending. Kahle said the effort was designed to help chart an e-book future for libraries beyond the vendor-driven, publisher-restricted models currently available, offering "millions of books... lots of winners, and no centralized points of control."
On the show floor, librarians jammed the booths of e-book service providers for demos, including OverDrive, which recently rolled out new enhancements to its market-leading service; 3M, which recently announced the debut of its Cloud Library; audio vendor Recorded Books; and Baker & Taylor, which rolled out Axis 360, with Barnes & Noble, a "collection development channel" that bundles digital and physical content.
Publishers and librarians also continued the broader conversation about the e-book future, a discussion sparked by HarperCollins's decision to cap the number of times its e-books can be circulated, while some major publishers, including S&S and Macmillan, refuse to sell e-books to libraries at all. In a statement, Bonnie Tijerina, chair of the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy E-books Taskforce, praised HarperCollins for its engagement. "This type of open dialogue is valued by our members and contributes to the overall understanding of the e-book environment," she said.
The conference keynote speakers, meanwhile, offered librarians an insightful take on the media and information in the digital age. NPR's On the Media host, Brooke Gladstone, gave librarians a thought-provoking presentation based on her illustrated book The Influencing Machine (Norton), urging those in attendance not to fear the digital future, to embrace the gadgets, but to be aware of the effects such changes bring.
Sue Gardner, CEO of the Wikimedia foundation, detailed the state of Wikipedia, which now exists in 273 languages, serving 410 million people, with more than 100,000 unpaid citizen editors—a stunning 91% of whom are men—something Gardner was eager to see change. Gardner acknowledged that the world was still sorting out its feeling for Wikipedia and acknowledged its faults. But people like Wikipedia because they understand "it is for them," she said, not the work of government or a corporation. "Wikipedia is based on a radicalism that librarians share," Gardner concluded, "a radicalism that people should have a right to access information. We wish we didn't have to live in a world where that was radical. But we do."