The 2017 ALA Midwinter Meeting, held Jan. 20-24 in Atlanta, had the lowest attendance of any Midwinter Meeting in 25 years. ALA officials reported that total attendance (including exhibitors, excluding comps) was 8,326—down substantially from the 11,716 who came to the 2016 event in Boston. The lackluster turnout follows on the heels of last June’s ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, which had the lowest attendance in 22 years.
The disappointing 2017 Midwinter Meeting numbers end a five-year trend of rising attendance at ALA Midwinter—although, in fairness, this year’s show faced considerable competition from the Women’s Marches held throughout the country on Saturday, January 21, including a march in Atlanta that many librarians participated in.
ALA hopes to rebound this summer, when the annual conference returns to ALA’s hometown of Chicago, which typically means a well-attended show. The 2018 ALA Midwinter Meeting is set for Denver, and there will also be a Public Library Association Meeting next year, set for March 20-24, 2018, in Philadelphia.
In addition to lagging attendance, uncertainty regarding the future of libraries under a Trump administration also hung over the show. A day before the conference opened, The Hill reported that Trump will seek to eliminate the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts. The NEH, which celebrated its 50th anniversary with a session at last year’s ALA Annual Conference, has awarded nearly 3,400 grants to libraries over the years, totaling $515 million, plus another 80 grants to the ALA, beginning in 1971.
Most recently, the NEH funded the ALA’s Great Stories Club, a program that provides books to at-risk and underserved youth. Questions also loom regarding the future of other federal programs that support libraries, including the Institution of Museum and Library Services, which funds millions in grants to libraries nationwide, and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), an education bill that includes critical support for school libraries. Signed by Obama in December of 2015, ESSA is set to be implemented this fall, but the new administration could change that plan.
But librarians’ concerns about the new Trump administration run deeper than funding questions. Immediately following the 2016 election many librarians expressed concern that Trump’s campaign rhetoric breached some of the library community’s most fundamental values, including intellectual freedom, diversity, and social responsibility. In response, on Sunday, Jan. 22, ALA hosted a lively town hall meeting in Atlanta (a replay of which is available for viewing on the American Libraries Facebook page) in which more than 30 librarians shared their thoughts on the need for ALA leadership to strongly defend and advocate for the library’s core values, knowing that some of ALA's public positions will be seen as political and could, in the words of one librarian, “materially harm libraries,” especially those in the country’s more conservative regions.
Values were also the subject of the show’s opening keynote speech by W. Kamau Bell, whose memoir The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6’4”, African-American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Black, Proud, and Asthmatic Blerd, Mama’s Boy, B-Student, and Stand-Up Comedian, will be published in May by Dutton.
In his address, Bell, the popular podcaster and host of the CNN show United Shades of America, urged librarians to resist the “normalization” of Trump’s vision of America. “Everything that’s happening right now in America, you’re on the front lines of that,” Bell said. “You put books in people’s hands, and you have to make sure that the books you put in people’s hands reflect a wide array of ideas, and a wide array of authors, of diversity, of color, of sexuality, of gender orientation.”
Political uncertainty aside, books and authors were of course a major focus of the show, with a full slate of author talks, as well as signings on the show floor.
Among the highlights were the coveted Youth Media Awards, where Kelly Barnhill won the 2017 John Newbery Medal for The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Algonquin Young Readers) and Javaka Steptoe won the 2017 Randolph Caldecott Medal for Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Little, Brown). Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis was in attendance in his home district, with co-authors Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, to accept the 2017 Michael L. Printz Award for March: Book Three (Top Shelf).
On the adult side, the 2017 Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction were also announced. Colson Whitehead won fiction honors for The Underground Railroad, and Matthew Desmond won the nonfiction award for Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. The authors will accept the awards in June during an official ceremony at the ALA annual conference, in Chicago.