From Michael Eric Dyson’s rollicking opening keynote, to the closing session with actor and author Jamie Lee Curtis, themes of diversity, equity, and inclusion dominated the 2016 American Library Association Annual Conference, June 23–28, in Orlando, Fla. And despite the lowest total attendance for an ALA annual conference in 22 years, it was a high-energy show, with librarians rallying to support the LGBTQ community, and the city of Orlando, which is still coming to grips with the hate-fueled mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub on June 12.
In his opening talk, Dyson praised librarians for supporting the kind of literacy that helps people understand the need for diversity and inclusion. “Equity, diversity, and inclusion are critical,” Dyson said. “But the literacy that [libraries] promote, that [librarians] inspire, the literacy that you instigate, is also vital. Because, at the end of the day, as my daddy and mommy used to tell me, that is something that nobody can take from you—nobody can ever pass a bill that would deny you access to the insight that you gain when you read a book.”
Also on hand, fresh off his sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives, Congressman John Lewis delivered a message of hope and perseverance. Appearing with the coauthors of his March series of graphic novels, which tell the story of Lewis’s life in the civil rights movement, the Georgia congressman implored librarians to continue to help kids engage with history “so they can learn never, ever to make the mistakes” of past generations.
“What March is saying is that it doesn’t matter whether we are black or white, Latino or Asian, it doesn’t matter whether we are straight or gay,” Lewis said. “Through books, through information, we must find a way to say to people that we must lay down the burden of hate. For hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
At a reception where he accepted his 2016 Carnegie Award for Excellence in Fiction for The Sympathizer (Grove Atlantic), author Viet Than Nguyen (who also took home the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) spoke of his love for libraries. But he told librarians that he was motivated to become a writer not by what he found in his local library, but by what he didn’t find: books by or about people who looked like him. Sadly, the 2016 Carnegie winner for nonfiction, Sally Mann, author of Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (Little, Brown) did not attend the reception, due to the recent death of her son. Mann’s editor, Michael Sand, ably filled in, however, and read a letter from Mann that left librarians choking back tears.
The show’s total attendance of 16,597 was the lowest for an ALA annual conference since Miami Beach, in 1994, and was down a hefty 26% from the 22,491 who attended last year’s event in San Francisco. But even though the decline in attendance was perhaps steeper than expected, it was not a surprise—Orlando in late June has never been a big draw for ALA, and this was the third national library conference in six months; the biennial Public Library Association conference was held this year in April in Denver, and ALA Midwinter was in Boston in January.
The librarians who did make it to Orlando certainly injected a large measure of positivity to grief-stricken city. In addition to highlighting diversity issues in their main program, librarians held a moving memorial for the 49 victims of the Pulse shooting, participated in a two-day blood drive, and set up numerous volunteer opportunities in the community. And, in support of free speech, a number of librarians were recorded outside the exhibit hall reading from banned LGBTQ-themed books for an upcoming advocacy campaign.
In a Monday session on the ALA main stage, 16-year-old author and transgender advocate Jazz Jennings, who was in Orlando to talk about her new memoir, Being Jazz (Crown), neatly captured importance of talking about issues such as acceptance and inclusion.
“It’s not just about changing lives,” she said. “It’s about saving lives.”