By the American Association of School Librarians’ official count, 2,500 school librarians, administrators, and exhibitors converged on the Phoenix Convention Center November 9–11 for the 18th AASL National Conference. That number is down just slightly from the 2,593 attendees AASL announced for its previous national gathering in 2015. For three warm, sunny days—or longer for those attending pre-conference events—school librarians were able to absorb not just great weather but a heady amount of professional development, collegial networking, and even some Southwestern-flavored fun.

A number of attendees told PW they enjoy the smaller size and narrower focus of their divisional conference as compared to other, larger national meetings. “The thing I love about AASL is that it’s just about school librarians,” said Nancy Jo Lambert, teacher librarian at Reedy High School in Frisco, Tex. “I do lots of presenting, and at other conferences I have to worry about addressing public librarians, teachers, special librarians. But at AASL, I can be with my people.”

While most exhibitors we spoke with said that the cozier atmosphere of AASL often affords opportunities for more relaxed, targeted conversations, they also noted that the gathering in Phoenix seemed quieter than usual. Lisa Kappakas, v-p of operations at Bella & Harry, publisher of the Adventures of Bella & Harry travel picture-book series, was among those disappointed in reduced foot traffic this time around. “It’s definitely been slower here than in Columbus [2015] or Hartford [2013],” she said. Lee German, publisher of Arbordale, echoed that assessment. “I don’t know if it’s just lower numbers [of attendees] here, or maybe too many conflicts with the sessions, but it’s been very slow,” he said.

At the ACC Publishing Group booth, things were a bit more upbeat. Virginia Anagnos, executive v-p at Goodman Media, was at the booth helping to represent debut author Sherry Ross and illustrator Julie Bell, who were on hand to promote their new fantasy/sci-fi novel Return of the Vinetropes, first in the Vinetrope Adventures series. “We’ve given almost 400 books away,” Anagnos said. Also on a bright note, Judy Cluggish, events specialist for OverDrive, said of the conference, “It’s been going really well. We had the giveaway of the Ghost e-book by Jason Reynolds [during his session] and a lot of people were very excited about that and his new book, Patina. Our breakfast was well attended; we had 135 people. And from our in-booth presentations I’ve learned some things about how school librarians have implemented OverDrive and how their students are responding.”

A Full Schedule

On Thursday, many attendees got the conference ball rolling when they joined authors Sarah Dessen, Christian Robinson, and Jordan Sonnenblick for Authors in the Afternoon, a pre-conference event featuring short talks and a Q&A session with each participant. Then, a bit later, Jaime Casap, a global education ambassador for Google, Inc., who is based in Phoenix, officially kicked off the conference with an inspirational keynote address about the role of technology in education, and the power of school librarians to build the strong digital leaders that today’s world demands. With humor, passion, and statistics about the gap between the number of computer science jobs available and trained employees to fill them, Casap challenged the audience to create a fresh mindset for working with students. “Start asking new questions with an understanding of what the future looks like for your students,” he said. “Don’t ask, ‘What do you want to be?’ but, ‘What problem do you want to solve, and what knowledge, skills, and abilities do you need to solve that problem?’ ”

Casap emphasized the importance of collaboration at all levels, and seeking ways to use technology to bring good teaching ideas to life. He noted that technology in education is not a new concept, though it can often seem so, and emphasizedthe key role school librarians play in helping kids navigate a tech environment. “Just because this generation was born with technology doesn’t mean they know how to use it,” he said. “We must remember that how they think about learning is different because of the world they were born into.” Following his speech, Casap chatted with librarians on the exhibit floor at the Google booth, where the company was touting its new Be Internet Awesome program, which helps teach kids the fundamentals of digital citizenship.

Friday’s lineup began with a general session that offered a look at the highly anticipated new AASL National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries, which were officially unveiled at the conference after more than two years of AASL committee work, with input from a variety of stakeholders, via focus groups and surveys. The general session identified and thanked those involved with drafting the standards and helping to guide their implementation, and introduced key themes of the standards framework, including common beliefs and shared foundations. The session also served as an opportunity to steer librarians to more in-depth concurrent sessions about the standards, a new web portal featuring resources for professional development and standards implementation, and the standards document itself, which could be purchased from the on-site bookstore.

The conference’s full slate of concurrent sessions covered a spectrum of topics ranging from advocacy and diversity to weeding, makerspaces, and exploration of websites, apps, and social media platforms. In between sessions, librarians strolled the exhibit floor where they found typical giveaways (ARCs, tote bags, buttons, t-shirts, pens) and contests, as well as book signings, and product demos. Many of the vendors that are major players in the school library arena had staff and school librarian “ambassadors” on hand presenting the fine points of various online tools. Gale was showing its new Google Chrome extension for its Opposing Viewpoints in Context database. When students do a Google search via Chrome, the extension will show Gale database search results—“branded” with the subscribing school’s name—alongside the Google results. Lemma Shomali, director of K–12 products at Gale, believes that the extension can help teachers and librarians guide students to seek out the “vetted, authoritative, and trustworthy” sources from the Opposing Viewpoints database instead of going to Google first.

In addition to promoting its traditional suite of products, Follett focused on the rollout of its Follett Book Fairs business, launched regionally last month and set to go national in the 2018–19 school year. Follett was also showing several Lego Education solutions products, which it announced during the conference it is now selling to school librarians who are creating makerspaces and other opportunities to explore STEM concepts in their library. The company was promoting its just-announced Fast Ship service, which offers next-day shipping on thousands of titles from its Titlewave catalog. “It’s similar to Amazon Prime,” said Nader Qaimari, president of Follett School Solutions. “Because we have seven distribution centers now [following the acquisition of Baker & Taylor in 2016], we can ship some titles within a certain time frame. It has really taken off.”

On Friday night, with a loaded workday behind them, attendees boarded buses bound for Corona Ranch and the Conference Celebration. Stations featuring Mexican food, fire pits, and tables dotted the courtyard decorated with stringed lights. The evening’s entertainment began in earnest when the crowd gathered inside an authentic rodeo stadium where they heard a live mariachi band and watched AASL president Steven Yates lead rodeo performers into the arena—marking his first-time ever on horseback. Professional bronco riders, trick riders, and lasso artists performed. Later, several librarians, including Yates, took part in an “audience participation” segment that involved teams of attendees helping to rope a calf and milk a goat.

Saturday, the final day of the conference, featured a very well attended author general session with National Book Award winner Jason Reynolds. As a perk, sponsor OverDrive Education and Reynolds’ publisher Simon & Schuster offered session attendees free digital access to Reynolds’ e-book, Ghost. In his talk, Reynolds shared some personal observations and cited frequently emotional anecdotes from his interactions with young people, while exploring what it might be that makes his books “work.” He posited that the key to reaching young people—and creating a better world in general—lies in showing “humility, intimacy, and gratitude.” One of the ways we can all create gratitude, he offered, is to say thank you. “When’s the last time you said thank you to a young person for coming into your library?” he asked. “When’s the last time you said to a young person, ‘I appreciate you just for being who you are, even if being who you are gets on my last nerve?’ ” He provided equally moving examples of demonstrating humility and extending grace to kids before surmising, “Kids have so much to show us. These books ain’t nothing but thank-you notes. Love letters to our children.”

Post-Conference Reflections

Throughout the weekend, librarians shared their impressions of the conference, what interested them most, and what ideas they were bringing home. Michele Bowman, a member of the board of directors of the Tennessee Education Association, said, “Our biggest concern right now is that 75% of school librarians have fewer than five years experience.” Her fellow TEA board member Carrie Clabo added, “There are lots of school librarians retiring with no one to replace them.” Aside from focusing on advocacy issues and the new standards, Bowman and Clabo said they enjoyed the session on AASL’s Best Websites, and a vendor session at the ABDO booth featuring Duchess Harris, co-author of Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA, who presented a “great history” of NASA and revealed the work her grandmother did there. Harris is working on new titles in her line of books for middle-grade and high school students with ABDO.

For Nina Lindsay, supervising librarian for children’s services at Oakland Public Library and 2017–2018 ALSC president, the conference offered a different perspective. “As a public librarian it was great for me to be at AASL,” she said. “I was able to gain some insight into the new standards, and since none of the school librarians in my district could come, I’m able to bring that information back to them.”

Vivian Kelly-Bateman, school library media specialist at Jefferson Montessori Academy in Carlsbad, N.M., had a couple of favorite takeaways. “I can’t decide between two sessions,” she said. “One was Separating Fact from Fiction, led jointly by Maggie Crawford and Andrew Lih. Maggie pointed us to the NewseumEd website for tools and resources in teaching this vital new skill. Andrew discussed Wikipedia as a source for students. He was a treasure trove of information about the website and its usefulness to our students, and ourselves. The other session was Exploring AASL websites for learning and teaching. Who can’t use this information: 225 websites that we can use, mostly free, and they have already vetted them for us! Awesome!”

And Laura Trapp, librarian at Rossiter Elementary School in Helena, Mt., noted, “A particularly helpful session for me was the Digiwise session put on by the Maryland librarians. They have developed a website of resources for librarians in their state to use when teaching digital citizenship and it is available for anyone to use. They also used an app called Goose Chase for a scavenger hunt that was very engaging, and I’m looking forward to trying that with my students.”

As for turning her experience in Phoenix into an action plan, Trapp is prepared. “I will be sharing the info from the Digiwise session, as well as information on the standards that we learned throughout the week, and any tidbits that I learned from the authors and illustrators, with my colleagues here,” she said. “Actually, all of us that attended from Helena—there were five of us altogether—are working on a document to share with all of our colleagues here—sort of collected wisdom—to let them know the highlights of the conference from each of us.”

Though there will be plenty of opportunities for school librarians to gather at other events between now and then, the next AASL National Conference will take place November 14–16, 2019 in Louisville, Ky.